Can You Make More Money with an Associate’s Degree than You can with a Bachelor’s?

I was, of course, intrigued by read the headline of an article on CNNMoney.com that read “Community college grads out-earn bachelor’s degree holders.” Written by Jon Marcus of The Hechinger Institute, the article reports research done by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce which shows that nearly 30% of Americans with associate’s degrees now make more money than those who have earned a bachelor’s. These community college graduates hold jobs demanding what Marcus calls “middle-skills,” requiring “no more than an associate’s degree, such as lab technicians, teachers in early childhood programs, computer engineers, draftsmen, radiation therapists, paralegals, and machinists.” Marcus also cites some compelling data reported in January by CareerBuilder.com:

With a two-year community college degree, air traffic controllers can make $113,547, radiation therapists $76,627, dental hygienists $70,408, nuclear medicine technologists $69,638, nuclear technicians $68,037, registered nurses $65,853, and fashion designers $63,170, CareerBuilder.com reported in January.

Decent, and even better than decent salaries, it’s true, especially if the people earning them consistently out-earn those who have earned four-year degrees. By the end of the article, however, Marcus contradicts the article’s headline (which I recognize he might not have written):

Still, the salary advantage for associate’s degree holders narrows over time, as bachelor’s degree recipients eventually catch up, says Schneider.

Although these figures vary widely by profession, associate’s degree recipients, on average, end up making about $500,000 more over their careers than people with only high school diplomas, but $500,000 less than people with bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown center calculates.

An associate’s degree might give you a head start, in other words, but if you don’t continue your education, you will eventually fall behind. One reason for this, I would suggest, is that the more fully-rounded liberal arts education that a bachelor’s degree represents better prepares you for the challenges of engaging, thoughtfully and responsibly, the world of work at ever higher levels of responsibility and accountability, which correspond, of course, to higher levels of compensation. It’s true that on-the-job experience is also necessary to learn how to meet those challenges, but that experience is not guaranteed to teach you the critical thinking skill you will learn in a college classroom and that are essential in building a successful career of any kind.

I teach at a community college that is regularly touted, and not just by itself, as one of the best in the nation. We have a nationally recognized honors program, have been cited by our accrediting agency and other important groups for our model of and commitment to faculty governance, the excellence of our program offerings, the quality of our teaching, and our approach to assessment. I have been saying for a very long time that, all else being equal, I would be very happy to send my son to the school where I teach, where he could get the first two years of his college education not only for significantly less than $10,000/year, but also from faculty who are committed to both teaching and scholarship. Nonetheless, I have long been accustomed to the disdain in which many people–inside and outside academia–continue to hold the kind of institution where I teach, along with teacher who work there and the students we teach. So I really do appreciate the point I assume Marcus’ article was intended to make, i.e., that we should not write off community college education as second-rate; and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using the potential earning power of an associate’s degree as part of an argument for why.

What I don’t appreciate, what I think is actually dangerous, is the way that this part of the argument often becomes the argument in its entirety, essentially equating higher education with job training. You see this, for example, in the proposed higher education budget in New York State, where the Next Generation NY Job Linkage Program (read Section D) ties funding for certain community college programs to whether or not they can be justified by the rate at which students who finish those programs find jobs. You see it as well in the pronouncements by politicians of both parties who make statements like the one North Carolina’s governor Pat McCrory made, referring to certain humanities and social science courses, like gender studies, “What are we teaching these courses for if they are not going to help get a job?” The problem with this question is not that it is unfair to ask about the practical value of a college education. Any degree or certificate program offered at any college or university, needs to be justified at least in part on those grounds. The problem is that when this question governs how we assess the value of a college education, we lose sight of the fact that the purpose of a college education in a democratic society is not to train people for work. Rather, the purpose of a college education in a democratic society is to nurture an engaged and active citizenry. (I will grant you that there was a time when a high school education served this purpose as well, but in the United States today, that is not the case anymore.) If we allow the market, which is inherently undemocratic, to dictate what an education ought to be, then we will have undermined what has been the most powerful democratizing force in this country for the past 150 year at least: a four-year liberal arts education.

One of the biggest mistakes that politicians and business leaders make is to treat higher education as if it were a business, as if the degrees students receive when they graduate, or even the newly graduated students themselves, are products that can be tallied, the worth of which can be measured, in the same way that the worth of any other manufactured product can be measured. This way of thinking is inherent in the high-stakes, standardized testing of No Child Left Behind, and you see it in accountability funding schemes that attempt to measure the bottom line of a college’s efficiency and productivity based on the number of degrees it confers per year or, as an administrator tried to do at my school, that determine an academic department’s viability based on the post-graduation employment records of students who took courses in that department. (Forget whether the premise has any validity at all; just imagine what a nightmare it would be to try to collect that kind of data.) The problem with this way of thinking is not that the number of degrees conferred or the practicality/relevance of a field of study doesn’t matter doesn’t matter–of course they do. The problem with this way of thinking is that it fails to take into account the full complexity both of what it means to be someone who claims an education and what it means to do the work of making that education available to be claimed.

Stuart Rabinowitz makes this point quite well in a Newsday editorial, where he wrote:

Approaching an undergraduate education based on the availability of jobs in a particular area may appear to be a low-risk/high-reward endeavor, but these trends can change with astonishing rapidity. Think of how quickly job prospects in law and finance changed from 2008 to 2009. The jobs that are seen as hot today may cool off by the time a student is ready to graduate; jobs that may be abundant in one region may be hard to come by in another. The virtue of a liberal arts education is that it provides the graduate with enduring communication and critical thinking skills that are less susceptible to the consequences of job erosion in an area where a student has devoted years of pre-professional training.

The pressures that our economy has brought to bear on higher education are real, and they demand a response, but treating higher education as if it somehow were the problem, gets things ass-backwards is a serious and potentially destructive way. With the exception of the continuing rise in the cost of a college education, private and public–an increase, I would point out, that has little or nothing to do with a school’s academics–and the crushing amount of debt that too many graduates end up shouldering, neither college administrations nor college faculty (both of whom, after all, are ultimately responsible for an institution’s academic offerings) created the socioeconomic problems that have resulted in the jobless rate we now face or the poor employment prospects college graduates will have to confront. Promising students the quick-fix of an education tied more or less directly to a job might look good on paper, but it will not do anything to address the underlying issues.

Cross-posed on my blog.

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86 Responses to Can You Make More Money with an Associate’s Degree than You can with a Bachelor’s?

  1. 1
    quill says:

    I have become very disillusioned with the type of perspective you discuss here. I would still believe that formalized education ought to be about critical thinking, maybe, if not for the experiences my peers and I have had. Cool story, bro, I am so glad for you that you have managed to put food on the table via poetry and staying in academia for a long time. I think of you as from a different generation, where such good fortune was more common.

    At this point, most of the people I know with bachelors’ have gotten more debt than learning, and more difficulties than job skills. For the people who have gone beyond a bachelor’s, very, very few schools are hiring, and very few public-sector or non-profit jobs are hiring – especially people without a lot of experience. And getting experience often requires somebody to subsidize one’s cost-of-living while one does underpaid or unpaid internships. It feels like everybody is broke and desperate.

    At this point, I’m very reluctant to get a liberal arts education, as much as I’d like to go into research, because I would like to support myself financially more urgently than I’d like to do research – and I don’t believe those goals are compatible. Also, like, I have been reading this blog, and things like it, since before my freshman year in high school. I have no formal background in gender studies, and I’ve blown gender studies students out of the water in arguments on the topic – in part because, from my perspective, they seemed apathetic, underinformed, and woefully lacking in vocabulary. “Seriously? I need to stop and explain ‘cisgender’ to you? And that doesn’t bother you? Dang, okay.” I don’t know, maybe they weren’t a representative sample. Those discussions annihilated my prior interest in doing those individuals’ academic courses of study myself.

    I believe many of the people who are going to develop critical thinking skills in this day and age will do so via self-directed learning, via writing and reading and engaging in a liberal-arts-school fashion without liberal-arts-school insular communities and high costs of entry.

    I’m fond of saying “literary criticism is for people with English degrees, meta is for everybody.” The wider availability, accessibility, and inclusiveness of meta basically killed my interest in lit crit – especially any lit crit that somebody wanted me to pay money for. I imagine that, and the wider learning-related trend that’s part of, must be difficult for the people on the other side of the fence, so to speak.

  2. Quill:

    I believe many of the people who are going to develop critical thinking skills in this day and age will do so via self-directed learning, via writing and reading and engaging in a liberal-arts-school fashion without liberal-arts-school insular communities and high costs of entry.

    I think you may be right and, no, it’s actually not that difficult for to accept.

    Aside from that, though, I have a couple of responses:

    1. You may be one of those people who can learn in a self-directed way. My students, overwhelmingly, cannot, at least not at first. Self-directed learning requires training; you need to know how to do it, and you (universal you; not you, Quill) also need to learn the humility to know when it’s not enough, when you need someone actually to teach you something. So, no, I am not threatened by self-directed learning or learners. The wider availability of information on the internet can, should, has changed the way I do my job, but I don’t think it makes me or a liberal arts education obsolete; it just means that my job is not the same job that it was when I was hired.

    2. The “liberal arts” in liberal arts education is short for “liberal arts and sciences.” The people who are getting bachelors of science degrees in very practical fields are also getting liberal arts educations; it’s not just about research, or poetry, or finding work in the academy. As well, there are plenty of people in my generation who had a hard time finding work when they graduated with a BA, who spent a lot of years moving from job to job until they ended up in whatever career they have made for themselves. The problems now may be different in scale, but they are not different in kind, I don’t think, based on not a few of the people know, from the problems faced in previous generations. I don’t mean by this to trivialize the scale of the problems today; I just don’t think that degrees in the liberal arts and sciences are at the root of those problems in the way that politicians and college administrators are talking about now.

    3. I don’t how old you are or where you are in your education, but I just want to say that I hope you are able to find a fulfilling way to put food on your table, support your family, and have the life of the mind that your comment suggests is so important to you. It is true that, especially in the current economy, a four-year degree is not the ticket to that kind of life that it is supposed to be and that it may have been at one time, but it is a life well-worth working for and I wish you success in achieving it.

  3. 3
    Robert says:

    You also have to account for cost of capital. With that in mind, the associate degree becomes even more competitive with the bachelor’s. Using the comparison numbers in the story (4-year school costing $160k, 2-year public costing $6k) you will do far better off if you are paying for your own costs.

    The reason is that you start paying for your college expenses right away, whereas the incremental gains made year over year by the bachelor’s recipient come at the end of your career. At the end of your career, incremental gains in income are worth very little when compared to gains at the beginning. (Would you take a deal where from 20 to 29 you get an extra $500 per month in income, in exchange for a promise that from 56 to 65 you’ll pay back $600 per month? You’re a damn fool if you don’t, or you anticipate four decades of deflation.)

    Even if you’re one of the lucky few who pay off their college loans in 10 years, that $160k is going to cost you $220k or so at typical rates today. In purely financial terms, is it worth spending $220k now to net $280k in 40 years? Not even close.

    Also, Richard, sorry to be an anti-intellectual pragmatist fascist, but the 4-year school doesn’t provide an income boost because of doing a better job of preparing you for civic engagement and teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking reduces your suitability for many kinds of lucrative work, and civic engagement is the consolation prize for people who don’t have any money to spend on drugs. 4-year schools give an income premium because you usually build a much richer peer network of high-capital individuals at a school like that, and that network gives your career an ongoing, incrementally building boost.

    It’s just not a boost that’s worth the quarter-mill, most of the time.

  4. Robert,

    I don’t know what the $500,000 figure cited in the article did and did not take into account so I’m not going to argue with your economics here. But about this:

    the 4-year school doesn’t provide an income boost because of doing a better job of preparing you for civic engagement and teaching critical thinking. Critical thinking reduces your suitability for many kinds of lucrative work, and civic engagement is the consolation prize for people who don’t have any money to spend on drugs. 4-year schools give an income premium because you usually build a much richer peer network of high-capital individuals at a school like that, and that network gives your career an ongoing, incrementally building boost.

    Anti-intellectual fascist pragmatism aside ;), what you say about the network might be true for small, liberal arts institutions. I am not so sure that it’s true (for the majority of undergraduate students; graduate school is different) in large state, city–I’m thinking of CUNY in New York City–or research universities, where most students get more or less lost in the crowd, so to speak.

    Also, what do you mean when you say that critical thinking “reduces your suitability for many kinds of lucrative work?”

    Oh, and I’m not suggesting–or at least I don’t think I did–that the civic engagement college is supposed to prepare you for will give you an economic boost. That’s a separate issue.

  5. 5
    Kaija24 says:

    I taught on the math faculty at a liberal-arts-oriented community college for over 5 years and often thought that these institutions were the best kept secret in higher education. Many of my students went to our college on their way to a four-year university, but chose to complete their general education requirements in a low-cost, student-centered environment either because their families couldn’t afford four years of university tuition/didn’t want to rack up debt or because they wanted a little more interaction in small classes before moving up to the larger pond of the university or both. I never had more than 25 students in a given class and was able to get to know each student and their needs fairly well. Many of my students were adults in transition, either updating skills post-layoff, changing careers, or re-entering the workforce after raising families. It was a rich mix and a great learning environment. I realize the the culture and quality of education varies from state to state (my community college was separate from vocation training programs and in other places, I realize that community colleges are sometimes almost purely voc-ed institutions) and from college to college, but it’s too bad that (like the OP said) these institutions are looked down upon so often. In today’s society, educational paths take many routes and are hardly ever “finished” after one stint.

    On the same topic, this article (which is an excerpt of a speech given by an outgoing Canadian university president) provides a nuanced counterpoint to the loud voices insisting that degrees be measured in terms of job training: http://business.financialpost.com/2013/03/14/fending-off-the-university-attacking-zombies/

  6. 6
    Jake Squid says:

    I have found myself shifting over the years in my view of higher education. Way back in the dark ages when I was beginning my career, I thought myself fortunate that I was a complete failure at school. While I was earning $30k to $50k/year during what might have been my college years, my peers were racking up $10k to $20k/year in educational debt. “What a lucky advantage!” I thought to myself. Over the ensuing 25 years or so, I’ve come to see a 4 year degree as initiation to the club of white collar drudgery. Sure, you’re probably going to have a higher income than those w/o a 4 year degree but you’re also starting out with over $100k in debt. Most of my peers have taken well over a decade to pay off that debt and their incomes aren’t so much greater as to make up for that.

    Your 4-year degree has gotten you into a higher social class at a pretty high cost. Not only the cost of that degree but also the cost of the trappings of middle class or better (more expensive house than you need, new cars every 2 to 4 years, more expensive wardrobe, etc.). I’m just not sure that the cost is justified for most people.

    At 17/18 I wasn’t prepared to make the cost/benefit comparison. I lived in a place where what you did after high school was go to college. Completely the wrong thing for me to do, but I did it anyway. I wasn’t aware of any other options. I was fortunate enough to fail out after less than a year.

    If a 4-year degree cost a lot less, I’d be an advocate for as many people doing that as possible. But, as it stands now, I’d recommend that most people find an alternative path.

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    Richard, think of any job where a commitment to rationality would get in the way. Ad exec, for one. If you don’t think critically about the work, you don’t have to distance yourself emotionally from it. If you do, then you do – which makes it harder.

  8. 8
    Sebastian says:

    You must understand that colleges, universities and institutes are not created equal, even within the same category. When I work with someone who went to R.I.T. it matter whether the R stands for Rochester or Rockhill (I assumed Rochester, and had my opinion of the place drop precipitously before I realized it was Rockhill)

    The Liberal Art College that Kaija speaks of sounds great, but I doubt many would prefer it to, let say, Claremont McKenna which shares the label (and which keeps the vast majority of its classes WAY below 25 students)

    When I was choosing where to go à l’université, I was well aware that individual reputation is way more important that the label attached to the institution.

    Oh, and college loans? I had less when I graduated than at the end of my Sophomore year. Eighteen months after graduation, I had none. (That was financially stupid of me, but I hated being in debt, and paying interest) In any case, absolutely everyone whom I know from the Institute at least claims to be education-debt-free within 10 years. So I have trouble seeing any reason in going to a less prestigious place than the best that accepts you.

  9. 9
    EdgeWiseInAnnArbor says:

    As a parent struggling to advise my children, I find this clouds the issue even more.

    Besides deciding whether to get a B.A. or associates degree, there is the question of whether to get the B.A. completely at a 4-year institution or to get the Associates first and then transfer into the 4-year institution.

    Is transferring risky? Is it harder to gain admittance to a 4-year institution after an associates degree then when you are fresh out of high school? Do community colleges not adequately prepare you for the rigor of 4-year institutions? Why isn’t it more common to get B.A. degrees for essentially half off by getting associate degrees first?

  10. 10
    Simple Truth says:

    “Critical thinking reduces your suitability for many kinds of lucrative work…”

    I agree with Robert instead of Richard? WhatisthisIdon’teven….

    It’s been my complete experience that most places (offices/retail/manufacturing/etc) look at you as a bad employee if you suggest different ways do do things or even to cut costs. They fear change, and thinking critically makes you far unhappier as an employee when it feels like an 8 – 5 stint in prison and you’re barely making ends meet. Throw in the power politics of most offices, and you’ve got a recipe for someone thinking you’re a gunner and trying to get you fired. Life is much simpler when you just do what you’re told.

  11. 11
    Robert says:

    I agree with Robert instead of Richard? WhatisthisIdon’teven….

    Richard is an academic, and – for all the troubles and travails of that field, and the everyday difficulties to which all flesh is heir – that is a dream job for a person of his (or my) temperament. He is like the 14-year old son of an absolutely idyllic marriage, who intellectually understands that divorce is possible, but just cannot conceive it in his heart.

    I, on the other hand, am the cynicism-blackened veteran of a gazillion years in the corporate trenches, in government work, and (oh blessed comparative heaven) individual entrepreneurship. I’m the kid who was born of mom’s third or fourth marriage – she can’t remember which one it is, now, and the records all got lost in the trailer fire. So it’s not so much disagreement, as just hugely different experiences of what working for other people is all about.

  12. EdgeWise:

    Is trans­fer­ring risky? Is it harder to gain admit­tance to a 4-year insti­tu­tion after an asso­ciates degree then when you are fresh out of high school? Do com­mu­nity col­leges not ade­quately pre­pare you for the rigor of 4-year insti­tu­tions? Why isn’t it more com­mon to get B.A. degrees for essen­tially half off by get­ting asso­ciate degrees first?

    While I can give you some general answers to these questions, things are so region- and even institution-specific when it comes to these issues, that you really ought to ask the people in the transfer office at the community college your children might go to, and at the four-year institutions to which they might transfer. In my college’s case, we are part of the SUNY, the state university system in New York; this means that almost any credits a student earns at my school will transfer without any problem to any of the SUNY four-year schools, including the big research-one institutions. As for whether it’s harder to get into a four-year school with an associates degree, as far as I know the answer is no, and in some cases, it might even be easier, in the sense that the minimum grade requirements for transfer students are often lower than the minimum requirements for admission. (At least that has been the case in the transfer situations I have know personally about; there may be other circumstances where it’s different.) To answer your last question, about why it’s not more common for people to get an associates degree first, I would say, first, that it has a lot to do with a kind of class/institutional bias against community colleges both in and out of academia. That said, depending on the kind of community college that is available to you–is it, like mine, primarily a liberal arts institution; is it primarily a vocational-oriented school–there may be good reason that people in that area don’t opt to go to community college first. As I said above, though, it is important that you speak directly with the people at the community college(s) you might be considering and at the four year schools as well; generally speaking, they have no reason to mislead you. Hope this helps.

  13. Robert:

    Richard is…like the 14-year old son of an absolutely idyllic marriage, who intellectually understands that divorce is possible, but just cannot conceive it in his heart.

    Well, no. I am neither as naive nor as inexperienced in the work world outside academia as you might think. Working for someone else can be, often is, a really shitty experience, whether you’re a school teacher, a college professor (though my job is probably as close as you can get to working for yourself without actually having to do it), an entrepreneur looking for clients (and I was that for a while as well), an office grunt, a janitor or whatever. The issue is not that we disagree about how shitty that experience can be/is; the issue is that I don’t think we should surrender things like the value of the kind of learning that takes place when you get an education in the liberal arts and sciences to that shittiness or, more specifically here, to the shittiness of our current economic situation.

    Does this mean I think everyone should get a four year degree? No. Do I think that if only everyone got such a degree the world would be all rainbows and unicorns and everyone would have a job they love and enough money? No. But my point was not that everyone should go get a four-year degree. I think there are a significant number of people who shouldn’t, who–if we did not live in a world where a BA is worth what a high school diploma used to be worth–would be much better off and would become much more thoughtful and productive members of society if they went to work right out of high school (or to a vocationally oriented community college or a vocational school). My point was that the tendency to use the current economic situation to devalue the kind of learning that takes place in a liberal arts institution is a problem, because that kind of learning matters deeply in terms of the health of this society/culture.

    I recognize that this assertion gets caught up in all kinds of pragmatic issues, such as the almost obscene cost of a college education these days and the current job market, and I am aware that to work all that through is far more than one can expect a blog post, much less a blog comment, to do; it would likely take a book that I am not about to write. I just want to be clear that I am not trying to propose a bachelors degree as some kind of gateway into some kind of liberal arts utopia.

  14. 14
    Robert says:

    Well, that’s a pretty reasonable and nuanced view, Richard. I apologize for so glibly putting you in the pollyanna camp.

    I personally think that almost no higher education is wasted; it is worth developing the mind almost without regard for what is learned. (You can set out to deliberately waste the time with underwater basketweaving or what have you, but such programs are rarer than the stereotype suggests, and also surprisingly likely to twist around in the minds of actual learners and turn into something real.) And you are 100% correct that a good political civilization does need those liberal-arts-fed brains and spirits scattered hither and yon to survive.

    Where I end up in conflict with folks is that I’m dubious about how many people with no resources ought to be propped up in such studies, when there is no clear or plausible avenue to an economic return for such individuals. In 1901, if you took a poor person of ordinary (but not world-changing) brilliance and gave them a liberal arts education, then they were likely to find some way of supporting themselves productively. We did not have a glut of history majors or art history experts in 1901; there were no guarantees, of course, but a bright young person who worked hard and was inspired by their subject could expect a reasonable chance at making it. I really don’t think that’s true today. If they are of MORE than ordinary brilliance, or drive, OK – but Joe Brightsixpack? No. He or she is outclassed, intellectually by a million people a little smarter, and operationally by a million people whose mumsy and dadsy will be GLAD to subsidize that year-long unpaid internship. It’s not that his or her effort is wasted, or that they won’t get something out of the education – it’s that it is going to be a seriously suboptimal career track for them.

    I blame, of course, democracy. “Studies show that the winners of 100-yard dashes do much better in life” – well then, let’s make sure that every single person gets to win a 100-yard dash, so that everyone will do better in life! I know that you aren’t saying this; we probably are pretty close on the advice that we would give a young student who didn’t know what they want to do when it came time to chose a college, or not. But the damage done by well-meaning advocates of universal college has been near-catastrophic, both for the economy and for the legions of workers (and non-workers) ill-served by the education that served the agendas of their teachers, of their colleges, sometimes of their industries – but rarely the agenda of the individual student.

    And ironically enough, given our many differences on many issues, I think community colleges represent a magnificent achievement in the field of providing a useful and enlightening educational path to people of modest means, straitened schedules, irregular previous academic attainment, or those who simply need a lower set of hurdles to start the first race. I think your system does the best job of any collegiate system at serving the needs of its students first, and that you’d have a better rep if it weren’t for the everyone-go-to-state propaganda of Big University.

  15. 15
    Robert says:

    Edgewise, I second Richard’s advice, and add one suggestion: go talk to the admissions office of the best 4-year school in your area that you’d be interested in attending, and ask them what their view is on the community college path. Dollars to donuts, they will be straight up with you and if it’s not the best option, they’ll tell you, but if it’s workable they will not only tell you so, they will give you pointers on what you should do to get the most bang for your buck and how to arrive at your junior year at the 4-year with the absolute best preparation possible.

    Richard’s suggestions for why people don’t do it are on-target as well. One thing he didn’t mention: if you fail out of school, or just drop out of school, it looks better in general if you fail out of the best or most rigorous school you could have gotten into. I dropped out of an elite four-year liberal arts school after two years…and I was viewed by potential employers as an idiosyncratic genius for whom regular schooling was a bad fit. (Suckers.) If I had done the exact same thing at a two-year school, without finishing the associate’s program, I wouldn’t have been able to sell that particular line of bullshit to anybody. So people planning to fail, or more generously, people aware that they might not be able to get over the finish line of college, may ironically enough shoot for a harder program so that if they do crash and burn, at least the fireball might get them a little credit for trying.

  16. 16
    Kaija24 says:

    EdgeWise, RJN said just about everything I could have said in an attempt to answer your questions. My community college was also part of the SUNY system so RJN’s perspective lines up with mine. However, the state in which I grew up had a completely different structure for their community colleges. The focus was vocational education with a side of general education courses. However, all three of my siblings did their first two years at our county’s community college and then transferred to several of the flagship universities in our state; I went to all four years at university. Our parents had very limited resources so we all took advantage of the in-state scholarships, grants, and articulation agreements. I took out more loans because I went straight to university, but we all have degrees that are from “the University”. Once you have the degree in hand, no one knows or cares if you did half of it at community college. I also agree with RJN that there is a lot of bias/looking down upon community college as “Grade 13″ or a fourth rate option as to why more students don’t take this path. Many students also want to get away from home and go directly into a university atmosphere rather than live at or near home; I was that student who wanted desperately to move away from my small town and be around/find my own kind of nerd and get away from conservative values/gender expectations. Other kids crave the “college experience” and prioritize a name brand or are more interested in the social life at a university vs. a commuter college. Educationally and financially though, it can be a good option that I wish more students considered. I’d also urge you to schedule an advising meeting or see if there is a prospective student event at your local community college. Most folks who work at these institutions, either as faculty or staff, are there because they really do care about the students and their education and tend to be very welcoming and helpful :)

  17. Robert:

    Did you read the article Kaija24 linked to? If not, it’s worth a read. The data that he uses are from Canada, though he does allude to some of the data that would apply here.

    Also, I just had to say that I haven’t heard the term “underwater basket weaving” in ages. It made me smile nostalgically.

  18. 18
    RonF says:

    Although these figures vary widely by profession, associate’s degree recipients, on average, end up making about $500,000 more over their careers than people with only high school diplomas, but $500,000 less than people with bachelor’s degrees, the Georgetown center calculates.

    The first phrase is key. The amount of money you make does vary widely by profession. I’d guess that if you broke it down by profession and by degree, you’ll find that there is a smaller class of degrees/professions – with a smaller number of people in them – that make a LOT more than your “average” high school graduate, and a large number of degrees that make less. THAT should be published, so people can get an idea of the worth of the degree you’re earning vs. the amount of money you’re spending on it.

    My son went to Enormous State University from 2004 to 2009. We paid $18K/yr. tuition + room and board for his degree in Mechanical Engineering (and that’s $26K/year now). Someone who got a degree in, say, Gender and Women’s Studies paid $15K/year. The difference isn’t that much – but what is the difference in the average lifetime earnings potential between the two? A welder isn’t going to make as much as my son over his lifetime, but I bet she would beat out the Gender and Women’s Studies major.

    As far as Community Colleges being looked down on, a lot of people in my area are looking into sending their kids to them for 2 years and then moving on to Enormous State University for their BS/BA.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    Sebastian, the debt you have upon graduation can depend a lot on a) where you go to school, b) how well endowed they are (snort!) and c) how they choose or were shamed into spending it.

    At MIT the school says that no student will have to choose to not matriculate because of finances. The current tuition charge is $43.5K – but the average scholarship awarded is $32K, and obviously the lower-income kids get more money. But then, MIT has a $6B endowment and some wealthy alumni (myself not being among the latter, I assure you). I got out of the Institute back when dinosaurs strode the Earth and owed about $7K in loans. But then, my first job paid $19.2K/year. Now kids are getting out with $100K in debt and get jobs paying $25K/year. Kids need to see that number on “Here’s what you can expect to earn in a job for people with a degree in ‘X’.”

    I say “shamed” because a while back the cost of higher education was the subject of Congressional hearings. An official from Harvard was testifying. He was talking about why Harvard cost so much to attend. Facilities, top drawer faculty, library, blah blah blah. Then one of the House reps asked “How much is your endowment?” The answer was $36B. The rep then asked “How many students do you have?”, “How much is tuition?”, ran the math and then asked “Why do you even charge tuition?” and started commenting about maybe the Feds should start taxing that $36B. Soon thereafter Harvard started not charging tuition at all to students whose families made less than – I forget, $50K or $75K or something such.

    From the original post:

    These community college graduates hold jobs demanding what Marcus calls “middle-skills,” requiring “no more than an associate’s degree,

    The trick is that a lot of jobs that ask for BS/BA’s don’t actually need a BS/BA. They just ask for them because there’s so many people with one out there. But the skills needed either get taught your first two years in college or don’t get taught at all and you have to learn them on the job anyway.

  20. 20
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Community college is less of a gamble and makes sense for more people than not, especially those who lack financial backing from their parents and who can’t afford to lose the gamble. Although your overall income may be less over your lifetime, that may or may not turn out to be the case. We do a shitty job at guessing “what job will Jane have in 20 years?” and it’s difficult to predict what skills will be valuable then (could be “English literature,” or it could be “adaptability.”)

    Some of the smarter students I’ve met were nontraditional, and used CC because they were in the process of “pulling themselves up” through the system.

    Also, there are some students who are mentally ill-suited to higher education (either on an IQ level basis, or as a result of atrocious education as a youth.) Those people can often benefit from taking the 100-level and 200-level classes involved in an associated degree, but don’t necessarily benefit from high-level seminars, theses, etc.

  21. 21
    Elusis says:

    Someone who got a degree in, say, Gender and Women’s Studies

    Ah, that favorite shibboleth of conservatives. Funny how you just “randomly” chose that one.

  22. 22
    Robert says:

    What random humanities-type degree should he have picked that would better make the point?

  23. Well, I’m not sure it’s only humanities degrees that we ought to be talking about. What about economics, sociology, history (which is humanities in some places, social science in others), linguistics–I’m not so sure the job market is so great for people with BAs in these fields either.

  24. 24
    Robert says:

    The humanities are the cellar in terms of salary post-graduation, and Ron was trying to draw the maximum contrast.

    Also, and I’m sure you know this, job market and salary expectation aren’t quite the same thing, though naturally there is much overlap.

    I think I first saw underwater basket weaving in a Robert Heinlein essay about how the schools in California were going to shit. It became a personal touchstone after I spent five or six years trying to spend a year studying at Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. Remarkable school. Showed me profoundly how much the educational experience depends on the student; you can study underwater basket weaving and have the most rigorous, mind-expanding, life-changing education in the history of pedagogy. Or you can study quantum physics and spend the whole time getting drunk and wind up in some incredibly degrading profession, like college professor or cartoonist. ;)

    It isn’t the program, in other words, its what the student does with it. I was more of the drunken cartoonist wannabe predilection, myself.

  25. 25
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    I think people misstate the debate about gender studies and other non-vocationalish majors.

    The question isn’t just whether the programs are good. The question is whether they should be subsidized by the state. that has to do with tye type of benefit as well as the absolute benefit.

    It seems pretty obvious that the state doesn’t subsidize all things that people want to do. And in many cases, the use of state subsidies is tied (at least in some sense) to the degree that the state believes it will benefit in the future.

    It’s entirely possible that there are programs which are highly beneficial to the students but which don’t produce sufficient payback for the state to justify a subsidy. Underwater basket weaving is probably one of them. Many other college courses may also be in that category.

    As the population increases and as economics go to shit, it’s entirely possible–and arguably a reasonable thing–for the state to say “listen, kids. We want to make sure you can read and write and add and generally think. But if you’re jonesing to spend the rest of your life studying something that we don’t think is productive, you’ll have to go to a larger state school (with bigger, cheaper, classes) or take classes online, or otherwise save up some money and study it on your own dime.”

  26. 26
    Robert says:

    Most every state-run college or university is in fact subsidizing everything across-the-board, G&W. That is probably changing; you can subsidize something that 10% of the population aspires to, but probably not half the people.

    There are additional subsidies through a number of different means and (usually) aimed at the favorite programs of the day. But the biggest subsidy, and one most people don’t see as a subsidy, is the student loan program (both direct and indirect) which provides ready cash for school for millions of people at their place of lowest personal foresight. That’s all well and good – caveat emptor – but those loans also escalate the price of education, even to those not taking loans. The loans make college “more affordable” (for now…) but at a cost.

    What irks me is the forgiveness provision of many loan programs. Take the right major or the right kind of job and your loans disappear. That is a subsidy and it borders on viewpoint discrimination in my book.

  27. 27
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Take the right major or the right kind of job and your loans disappear. That is a subsidy and it borders on viewpoint discrimination in my book

    I do not think that phrase means what you think it means.

    Those subsidies have to do with specific actions which benefit society, like “be a doctor in a town with no doctors,” or “be a schoolteacher in a place with few teachers” or “agree to spend three years as a public defender earning $37,000 instead of working for a large firm earning $75,000″ and so on.

    I’m not aware of any particular undergrad majors which are subsidized in that way, though I may simply not know of them. There are certainly graduate programs which fit the bill but they are largely subsidized by private parties. (For example, the subsidies of the oil and gas folks tend to make it relatively cheap to get advanced degrees in geology.)

    Viewpoint discrimination is about viewpoints, i.e. “you must support ___ cause.”

  28. 28
    Robert says:

    Join the US military? Work for the federal, state, or local government? Work for a charity on the approved list?

    Like I said, borders on. I think it used to “help specific underserved communities” to get it; now it’s just ‘work for’ (i.e., support) the government. Which means that people opposed to the government (whether mildly or sternly) pay full cost for college, while people happy to work for it have their costs displaced back onto the taxpayers. It’s like a raise for government workers that they didn’t have to call a raise.

    Oh, and the forgiveness is tax-free, if it’s done for ‘public service’. If I negotiate the *same exact deal* with the *same exact lender*, I pay income tax on my forgiven amount.

  29. 29
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    By that ridiculous (and presumably intentional) anti-government logic, any government work is viewpoint discrimination unless it’s involuntary and devoid of an action requirement. Right? You don’t get a tax refund unless you work with the government to deal with taxes; you don’t get welfare unless you work with them to submit your benefit requests. And so on.

    The government provides a huge variety of services from police to prosecutors, teacher to soldiers to doctors. You can work for the EPA or you can work as an IRS auditor. “I hate all government” isn’t the kind of viewpoint that people are referring to when we talk about viewpoint discrimination; to suggest that it is would be to render the term meaningless.

  30. 30
    Myca says:

    Which means that people opposed to the government (whether mildly or sternly) pay full cost for college, while people happy to work for it have their costs displaced back onto the taxpayers.

    Yes, it is also viewpoint discrimination that I do not get paid like a petroleum geologist just because I think the petrochemical industry is evil and would never work there.

    Ooh! Also, I find math boring! It’s viewpoint discrimination that nobody has given me an engineering job!

    —Myca

  31. 31
    Robert says:

    I take it that the phrase “it borders on” is semantically null in you gentleman’s language centers. France borders on Belgium, and is not Belgium; if I say that France borders on Belgium, your listing of French cities that are not in Belgium and Belgian cities that are not in France does not undermine my statement; it supports the premise that you do not know how to read.

  32. 32
    Robert says:

    I don’t think it’s the Cosmic Injustice of the 21st Century, by the way; I find it irksome. I suspect that if you put down the snooty snifter and thought it through, you’d find it a damn sight more irksome than I do.

    Myca, you go and get an advanced degree in Hippie Peace Studies, then go work for Occupy Alas! as a community organizer (and your organization doesn’t jump through the hoops and do the disclosures that put it on the Good Citizen list). You take out $100,000 in loans through Sallie Mae to pay for it.

    I go and get an advanced degree in Vaporizing Hippies Studies, then go work for Homeland Security as a hippie interrogation and torture specialist. I take out $100,000 in loans through Sallie Mae to pay for it.

    I get to walk away from my loans after I pay a certain fraction off. (It varies wildly, let’s say half.) I pay $50,000 back and the other $50,000 plus interest walks off my books and onto the taxpayer’s books.

    You, having learned many Jedi mind tricks to keep the hippies organized, manage to bamboozle the same bank into writing off half YOUR loan. All the amount of principal and interest that is forgiven goes straight onto your income tax bill as taxable income – even in your hippie bracket, probably $10 grand in payments straight to the IRS, to pay my salary.

    And that assumes that you manage to get the debt forgiven; you won’t. Forgiveness is hard to wrangle. You’ll end up paying $150k or $200k over time at full-freight interest rate, while I enjoy my tax-free, defaulted-on education and career path on your nickel. The total difference in our education costs is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; the taxpayers cover most of mine and almost none of yours.

    That doesn’t irk you? That doesn’t seem like it’s a stroke in the direction of the government playing favorites a little more than is cool?

  33. 33
    Brandon Berg says:

    An associate’s degree might give you a head start, in other words, but if you don’t continue your education, you will eventually fall behind.

    No, it’s much simpler than that. The answer’s right here:

    [N]early 30% of Americans with associate’s degrees now make more money than those who have earned a bachelor’s.

    That means that an associate’s degree holder at the 70th percentile makes about as much as the median bachelor’s degree holder. So the median associate’s degree holder makes less than the median bachelor’s degree holder. Hence the $500,000 lifetime deficit. The headline’s misleading—it should say that 30% of community college grads out-earn 50% of bachelor’s degree holders. Associate’s degree holders still make less on average, but there’s quite a bit of overlap in the distributions.

    Anyway, I’m going back to staying the hell out of it.

  34. 34
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    That doesn’t seem like it’s a stroke in the direction of the government playing favorites a little more than is cool?

    You mean in a DIFFERENT way than they already do when they determine which services to provide and which programs to start and how many people will work at what jobs?

    How do you distinguish–if you do–between “doing one’s job” (which obviously involves some filtering of potential work, unless you’re an omnipotent deity) and “playing favorites?”

    I am beginning to think that the distinguishing factor is simply whether or not you happen to like the results.

  35. 35
    Ruchama says:

    There was an article in the NY Times a few weeks ago about businesses that require every employee to have a bachelors degree. Every single one of them. They focuses on a law firm, where even the bike messenger guy who brings files back and forth between the office and the courthouse graduated from college.

  36. 36
    Robert says:

    G&W – I think the line could be drawn at the tax treatment of forgiveness. If forgiven student loans are income, they are income regardless of what job one happens to hold.

    What indication do you have, or what statement have I made, that shows I am objecting to “the results” (whatever those are) and not to the unequal treatment?

  37. 37
    RonF says:

    Elusis:

    <blockquoteAh, that favorite shibboleth of conservatives. Funny how you just “randomly” chose that one.

    Oh, no, it certainly wasn’t random. I went to the web site of the actual school my son went to, pulled up the list of B.S./B.A. degrees it offers, and selected the one that in my opinion is the one that would be most likely to result in a low-paying job. YMMV, of course. But if it’s not the actual lowest it’s probably close.

    GiW:

    The question isn’t just whether the programs are good. The question is whether they should be subsidized by the state. that has to do with tye type of benefit as well as the absolute benefit.

    For some time now I’ve been thinking that when a student wants a college loan the lender should ask the student, “What are you studying?”, have a look at what people who get that degree make on average, and adjust the terms of the offered loan – to the point of possibly refusing the loan entirely – on that basis. If the loan is guaranteed by the government in any fashion then a law should be passed requiring this. People should be free to study what they want. They should not be given my tax money unconditionally to do so.

  38. 38
    Jake Squid says:

    People should be free to study what they want. They should not be given my tax money unconditionally to do so.

    But here’s the thing – and we keep coming back to it over and over again. The things, really.

    One, it’s not your money once you’ve paid your taxes. We don’t get to decide where each of our dollars goes because it would never work in a country of hundreds of millions (or in a country of hundreds of thousands). I don’t want my money going to corporate subsidies. Well, tough shit. As long as we elect a majority of representatives that are for tax money going to corporate subsidies that’s what’s going to happen. Remember, it wasn’t “No taxation without micromanaging what my taxes pay for!” We have representation to disburse tax revenue.

    Two, you’re going to effectively eliminate degrees that don’t lead to high pay. I’m unable, at this moment, to express why this seems so awful to me. No more teachers? I don’t know. But I find that to be a terrible goal since I find education to be valuable for reasons beyond earning potential.

  39. 39
    Robert says:

    I don’t think Ron is saying that he should get a personal veto about how his education tax $ gets spent. Rather, he’s saying that our representatives need to do a better job of being responsible with that money, and getting societal bang from the individual buck.

    There is a very strong case that if the state is going to be involved in higher education, that it should spend money to get better outcomes in places where we get poor outcomes (for example, not enough teachers) AND where those better outcomes serve state interests. We may get poor outcomes in terms of how many specialists in early-10th-century Persian literature we produce; no offense to Richard, but it is unclear that this failing is problematic.

  40. 40
    Ampersand says:

    Check out this study of defaulting on loans among people who attend Texas A&M, and in particular the appendix showing the percentage who default by major (starting on page 81 as the pdf program counts pages, or 78 according to the page numbers).

    It’s not a perfect document for our purposes (for one thing, it doesn’t seem that the college offers Women’s Studies as a primary major, although it does offer it as a secondary major). But it does show that which majors are associated with a higher chance of default are not always what I suspect many folks would predict. The pre-engineers, for instance, are relatively likely to wind up in default. So are the computer engineers (general), although the computer engineers in more specific programs aren’t likely to default. Geology majors are more likely to default on loans than History majors. Physics majors default more often than Sociology majors.

    In nearly all cases, however, the large majority of students were not in default, regardless of major.

    Other factors – like successfully graduating, and GPA – are more important than what major is chosen, as far as i can tell from a few seconds skimming the executive summary, so I might be totally wrong about that.

    Also, don’t attend a for-profit university.

  41. 41
    Robert says:

    What does default rate have to do with anything?

  42. 42
    Ampersand says:

    I had thought it might address some of what I took to be Ron’s concerns.

  43. 43
    mythago says:

    Look, it’s one of RonF’s personal hobbyhorses that kids these days ought to stick to engineering and good old fashioned science and none of this silly Women’s Studies stuff. It’s not surprising that he would like his tax dollars to be used as a proxy to tell other people’s kids the parental equivalent of “You want to study any of that silly folderol, son, you can do it on your own dime, but your mother and I will not pay for you to become a poet.”

    “What are you studying?” is particularly stupid because it assumes that we can extrapolate from a particular major to a) the student’s eventual career and b) the student’s likely income, and then use student loans as a crude tool for pushing students into what we think will produce some kind of ROI several years’ hence. (Which is particularly odd given that the investment is, ultimately, the student’s; if my tax dollars support a kid who eventually becomes CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I don’t get a cut of his salary.)

    And, as Jake notes, it’s extra stupid because it assumes that the only value in a career is how much money it makes.

  44. 44
    Robert says:

    I don’t see Ron as saying that at all, although I can see why someone who doesn’t want to address the question of whether we should publicly subsidize higher education *no matter what* would rather argue against the straw Ron and his grumpy “nothing but math!” position.

    A lot of kids are running up huge loan bills, with huge consequences for their lives, to get degrees that are of questionable utility. And it is by no means only the degrees with little potential for earnings that are contributing to this problem; law school, which is widely regarded as a meal-ticket type degree, is a large fraction of the problem.

    I think a sit-down with students taking out loans to show them the typical incomes of people with the kind of degree they avowedly want to get can earn, and what their loan payment is going to look like as a fraction of that typical income, is a damn fine idea. And I think that if the government (i.e., you and me) is going to guarantee the loan, then the government has every right to look at the person coming from abject poverty, planning an eight-year degree in poetry with no grant-based financial aid, asking for $50,000 in loans, and say “how do you expect to pay this back”?

    When government guarantees loans, banks could give a shit whether the loan is a good one. They get paid either way. Kids are fucking themselves out of their future, and not being told “you know, many grownup type people would be throwing a red flag here, if it was their money and future on the line”. I don’t think it’s “Death to all humanities majors!” to note that maybe kids signing their fortunes away for degrees that have no earnings potential, should be told about that.

  45. 45
    Robert says:

    Ah, I gotcha, Amp. I think that the default rate might be reassuring, but the consequences of default are so dire, and the ability to get out of a loan (if you don’t take one of the forgiveness options) so limited, that people don’t default because they can’t, not because everyone is making a living. (And the loan people, at least in my experience, are pretty willing to work with debtors to keep them out of default, because default is bad for everybody.) So I don’t think it tells us much either way about the relative fiscal sobriety of various degrees.

    Personally I am all for rolling the dice and putting value on education beyond the fiscal…but if I was 100% deficit financing my degree in poetry of the classical era, I would think it would make a hell of a better bet at State than at Yale. If things go south, I can pay off state from my wage as a Domino’s assistant manager. Yale, not so much.

  46. 46
    RonF says:

    mythago:

    Look, it’s one of RonF’s personal hobbyhorses that kids these days ought to stick to engineering and good old fashioned science and none of this silly Women’s Studies stuff.

    Nice smear, mythago. Not at all true, of course, but it reads well.

    What I have actually said – repeatedly – is that young people should study whatever they want to when they go to school as long as they don’t intend to go into debt to do so. If they do intend to go into debt, however, then they need to be realistic about whether what the degree they get when they graduate will enable them to get a job that will in turn enable them to pay off that debt. Going into debt is not bad in and of itself – I did when I went to school. It took me about 5 years to pay it off. But going $100,000 into debt while getting a degree in something like Religion and Women’s Studies (an actual example that was in the New York Times a couple of years ago) or anything else that has employment prospects that are not commensurate with servicing that debt is just stupid.

    Do you have a problem with that? Doesn’t that make sense?

  47. 47
    Robert says:

    ““What are you studying?” is particularly stupid because it assumes that we can extrapolate from a particular major to a) the student’s eventual career and b) the student’s likely income…”

    Meant to address this.

    A) We cannot extrapolate perfectly from degree to career, but we can draw many inferences, and draw some absolute baselines. Nobody with a poetry degree (and nothing else) is teaching collegiate math (and nobody with a math degree and nothing else is teaching collegiate literature). People with PhDs in physics have a discernably different career-possibility cloud than people with an AA in renaissance history. An inability to perfectly project the future is not an impediment to civilly asking “and what do you plan to do with that degree?” or from drawing whatever conclusions are supported by empirical data.

    B) There is a strong correlation between field of study and income. It is not dispositive; there are engineers who are starving in the gutter and women’s studies majors who open up high-yield consulting firms and make umpteen kajillion dollars the first year out. But that isn’t the way to bet. (http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/education/cb12-196.html)… “The field of bachelor’s degree makes a considerable difference in a college graduate’s annual earnings, according to 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau. These differences add up over the span of one’s work-life.”

    (There are also major differentials by years of study/type of degree.)

    So…”irritating to engage with”, maybe, “subject to discussion and refinement of understanding”, absolutely…but “stupid”…not so much.

    Now, I would not go so far as to tell the kid planning to take out $50k in loans to study Basque literature, “you cannot do that”, unless they’re my kid and want me to cosign the loan. But I do not think it at all unreasonable that the kid be told “the average income for a Basque literature major last year was eighty-three cents an hour” BEFORE they pull a five-digit trigger on their life plan.

    Do you think that’s unreasonable?

  48. 48
    RonF says:

    People who make loans for a living ask the people who want to get the loands a whole bunch of questions about their careers, etc. for a reason. The fact that evaluating someone’s ability to pay back that loan based on answers to questions about their education, etc. is not a perfect predictor does not mean that it’s not a good predictor, nor that it’s not adequate to the task of doing the best job we can of ensuring that people we make loans to, as a group, will be able to repay the people who invested the capital that is being used to make those loans (whether they did it voluntarily as private investors or involuntarily as tax payers).

    Robert:

    Now, I would not go so far as to tell the kid planning to take out $50k in loans to study Basque literature, “you cannot do that”, unless they’re my kid and want me to cosign the loan.

    I think it’s entirely reasonable to tell that kid “The Federal government declines to co-sign that loan as well” – and declines to loan it directly.

  49. 49
    mythago says:

    although I can see why someone who doesn’t want to address the question of whether we should publicly subsidize higher education *no matter what*

    Speaking of straw-man arguments, there, Robert… or, really, there’s another Latin term I no longer remember for the game of “pretend your opponent has a far more extreme and offensive position than they do, and argue against THAT instead”.

    A career-planning sit-down with students is a spiffy idea. Problem is that nobody who is giving that sit-down talk is a disinterested party. The schools? Well, as you note, the law school bubble popped quite recently as a result of schools actively misleading and, in some cases, outright lying to their students about the potential ROI of their degrees. Oh, and colleges jacking up tuition in order to subsize their non-professional programs. (Five years ago or so, the young undergrad who said “I want to go to law school and work in estate planning” would, under our What Do You Plan To Do With Your Life program, have been on the smart side of the street. Today, he’s an idiot.) The lenders? Student loans aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy. They have no incentive whatsoever to help young people decide whether or not borrowing money for education is a good idea, and the government guarantee may be icing on the cake, but nobody walks away from the money they owe.

    Real-life career planning is a great idea. Tying it to the availability of loans – you only get one if you can prove that whatever career plan you have at this point in time is a smart idea – is silly. OF COURSE there is a link between field of study and income; I doubt anyone is arguing that the guy who is studying to be a social worker is likely to make as much as his sister who’s getting a degree in petroleum engineering. But the question of how we finance education is a lot more complicated than assuming all we need to do is teach English lit majors that the correct answer to the question “how will you pay this debt?” is not “I dunno.”

    RonF was not, by the way, simply suggesting that we need to do a better of job preparing students for the reality of paying off their debt. He was actively proposing that we limit the availability of loans based on 1) what the student wants to do now and 2) our view of the marketability of that degree: For some time now I’ve been thinking that when a student wants a college loan the lender should ask the student, “What are you studying?”, have a look at what people who get that degree make on average, and adjust the terms of the offered loan – to the point of possibly refusing the loan entirely – on that basis. So yes, I don’t think it’s much of a ‘strawman’ to note that RonF is suggesting that we use financial incentives to push students into majors that in some extrapolation are profitable. Subsidize the French Literature major who, THIS semester, wants to be a corporate lawyer, but the organic chemistry major who likes the idea of teaching high school can fuck off.

    @RonF, I can’t count how many times you’ve linked to that NYT article about the women’s studies major with a huge private loan debt as proof of your theory that kids these days have nobody to blame but themselves if they can’t afford nice things. (Even though the women’s studies major in question was not, as you suggest every time you post that link, astonished at her lack of a six-figure salary.) Hell, you brought it up AGAIN in your comment, even though you keep missing the point that it’s not a cautionary tale about avoiding frivolous classes.

  50. 50
    Robert says:

    “Problem is that nobody who is giving that sit-down talk is a disinterested party.”

    The government is, or ought to be, disinterested. The government is guaranteeing the loan so that students from marginal economic backgrounds can finance their education, if financing their education is a good idea. The Congresscritters who derive political gain from being “for education” have a vested interest, but they aren’t going to be doing the counseling; the loan-administering bureaucracy can probably be trusted to provide honest information to borrowers if that is made part of their power economy.

    Ron is suggesting that the terms of loans should vary in accordance with the practicality of the student’s program, up to the point where a completely non-monetizable degree shouldn’t be financed by the state. I really don’t have a problem with that.

    Ron is NOT suggesting that the student’s plan be part of this equation; I may have said something along those lines, in that I think that ought to be part of the counseling process, but Ron said “when a student wants a college loan the lender should ask the student, “What are you studying?”, have a look at what people who get that degree make on average, and adjust the terms of the offered loan”.

    So your hypotheticals about math PhDs getting denied their loan because they foolishly said they were going to follow Phish around the country for a year don’t need to be fretted over.

    I think that a Federal state dripping with surpluses and looking around in desperation for someone deserving to give all this money to, could probably blow off Ron and my point of view, and commit the error of being overgenerous to education rather than undergenerous. But that isn’t our Federal state; our Federal state is trying to decide how hard to try to save the lives of poor people under its medical care and which old people to push onto ice floes because their care costs too much. We’ve got enough good causes on the plate; we can stand to start cutting back on making sure that everyone who wants to be a French lit major gets the funding for it.

  51. 51
    Simple Truth says:

    I work in computer support. I’ve worked in computer support for seven years. Guess who doesn’t have a degree in computers?

    Most times the jobs require a degree, ANY degree, and also for you to interview well and perhaps know someone. If you’re trying to be something heavily regulated, then sure, you usually need a license….but you can usually take the test for the license without a degree in that field.

    If it allows you to get an interview, get any degree you can stand to sit through. Women’s studies, engineering…whatever makes you the fulfilled person who blows the other candidates out of the water because you have your shit together and you didn’t spend years making yourself miserable getting a degree you didn’t want because it was practical.

    And yes, the Federal government ALREADY has subsidies in place for jobs that are needed in high-risk areas. I don’t see any reason for them to police degree choices.

  52. 52
    mythago says:

    Ron is suggesting that the terms of loans should vary in accordance with the practicality of the student’s program

    No. RonF is flat-out saying that the terms, or even existence, of loans should vary in accordance with how much money is made (by some metric) by people holding a degree in that subject. Not what career the student intends to enter with that degree, not whether there is a glut of those degree-holders in the entry-level market, not the long-term projections for that career, not whether the student has a solid plan for repaying the amount of their loans. The English major who wants to drop out after his BA and get rich writing the Great American Novel and the English major who wants to get an advanced degree and work in public health policy are treated exactly the same. The organic chemistry major who wants to teach high school in rural Appalachia and the organic chemistry major who expects to get a job at Big Pharma, like his mom, are also treated exactly the same, even though their likely incomes will be vastly different.

    Oh, and of course students and colleges are going to game this system. Do we rescind loans if they change majors? Do we rely on the college’s definition of what constitutes a study program, and if not, how do we jam everything from Reed College to Liberty University into a single definition of ‘what is your major’?

    I am all for the idea of the government requiring What Are You Going To Be When You Grow Up And How Will You Pay For It education as part of a degree program in any college that uses student loan money to pay for its administrators’ ridiculous salaries, and more importantly, for forcing schools to accurately and with great detail report information about how their students do after graduation. (Private trade schools are already, and belatedly, under the gun on this one.) However, I think that the traditional parental lecture about what are you going to do with that ridiculous degree should remain privatized.

  53. 53
    Robert says:

    Anyone who can provide the signals that a degree is a signaling mechanism for can usually make a career in the field, unless there are trade guild rules (lawyers) or government regulations (doctors, cosmetologists) in the way. Bill Gates did OK without a degree; I did too, until I decided to go back and get one because there were things that I actually needed to learn that were easiest to learn in a college.

    I quite agree that the Federal government does not need to police degrees. It also does not need to guarantee student loans. One function is quite outside its granted powers; the other is probably a legitimate use of the power to tax and spend but it’s clearly not a mission-critical function, given that the US was at the top of the economic heap for a loooong time without doing anything of the sort.

    Deciding that we aren’t going to provide a loan guarantee in the case of people whose college degree signals mainly that they aren’t going to be earning much of a living, does not constitute policing the degrees.

  54. 54
    RonF says:

    mythago, you’re absolutely correct to point out that right now the schools and the lenders (at least for the standard student loans) have a conflict of interest because they have no skin in the game. We need to ensure that both the schools and the lenders share risk with the student. How is an issue to be explored, but the current situation is wrong. The change I”m proposing about loans is not the ONLY change I’d propose.

    Even though the women’s studies major in question was not, as you suggest every time you post that link, astonished at her lack of a six-figure salary.

    Actually, I never suggested she was astonished at her lack of a six-figure salary. What I noted was that she said that she claimed to have been told that a B.A. from a school like hers was the ticket to a job that would support a solid middle-class life. She and her mother both said that in retrospect they should have paid more attention to just how much money she was borrowing vs. her likelihood of being able to pay it back. I don’t think that a career in math is everyone’s future, but algebra you learned in your Sophomore year of High School will tell you that taking out $100K of loans to get a degree means you’ve got a heck of a monthly payment to cover. Common sense says that either you or your parents need to ask some questions.

    [RonF] was actively proposing that we limit the availability of loans based on 1) what the student wants to do now and 2) our view of the marketability of that degree:

    I think we should limit the availability of publicly-guaranteed loans based on those factors. Private lenders lending money on a non-government guaranteed basis can do as they damn well please – but we should either remove or at least limit shielding the banks from their bad decisions by making such loans non-dischargable in bankruptcy. IIRC the young woman in the example got $40K in standard student loans and then got another $60K in private loans after running out the availability of the other loan vehicles.

    Will that push people who cannot afford to go to an expensive school towards some majors and away from others? Probably. But that has nothing to do with any point I’ve got in mind. My intent is to keep kids from ruining their lives by accumulating debt that will destroy their credit ratings – which hurts their ability to get a job (yeah, employers often check your credit rating before they hire you, how about THAT! I think it’s an outrage myself …), get a mortgage, etc., etc. – and impoverish them for 20 years or more if they even EVER pay it back. I also am concerned that when a student does default, tax money that is supposed to be supporting education goes into the bank’s pockets instead.

    Schools need to be a lot more accountable about why a college education costs so much. Tuition has increased at double the rate of inflation for quite some time now. The number of administrators at 4-year schools relative to the number of actual teaching faculty has also greatly increased. Yet no one seems to want to dive into the question of how schools operate and whether they are spending their students’ money responsibly. Colleges just keep jumping their tuition and fees up year after year and the call comes for more money for student loans and grants. Believe me, I’m all for making sure that we support education. I would not have been able to afford MIT without having taken out loans. But “support” is one thing. “Enable” is another. Students are being held rigidly accountable by making their debts non-dischargable in bankruptcy. It’s well past time that the same thing happened to schools and banks.

    even though you keep missing the point that it’s not a cautionary tale about avoiding frivolous classes.

    Frivolous? I wouldn’t say the classes are frivolous, I’ve never taken them and can’t speak to the level of academic rigor that is in them. IIRC the NYT meant it as a cautionary take about those evil banks, how they lent this poor young woman money and trapped her in a life of financial servitude. Somehow the concept of “Then maybe she should have had enough wit to not borrow the money” got little consideration and the concept of “Then maybe the banks should have asked a few more questions and not lent her the money” didn’t get any at all. No one put a gun to her head and forced her to sign the loan papers. No one forced her to not ask questions about “How am I going to pay this loan back?” Everyone involved has to start taking responsibility here – the students, the parents, the banks and the schools. The current system ain’t working, but no one is suffering except the students.

  55. 55
    mythago says:

    Deciding that we aren’t going to provide a loan guarantee in the case of people whose college degree signals mainly that they aren’t going to be earning much of a living, does not constitute policing the degrees

    If the government were offering a $10,000 cash payment for anyone who got a B.A. in Women’s Studies, I doubt any of us would have difficulty seeing that as a subsidy, or in perceiving that the government was encouraging people to get Women’s Studies degrees. If the government refused to guarantee the loans of anyone who failed to take a Women’s Studies course, I have no doubt that even the squishy progressives here would be critical of the government policing undergraduates’ class choices.

    That aside, the problem you’re dancing around is that your “signal” is weak. You’re taking a declared major program and extrapolating from that to career choice, to income, to ability to repay the loan eventually. That’s a very flawed and blurry “signal”, and bluntly, it really isn’t much more than the old “you want fries with that?” joke dressed up as a concern for taxpayers. I don’t know why it’s so hard to realize that “salary by major” is very different than “salary by profession” or “current job prospects.” Hell, by yours and RonF’s standards, a smart play would be for a student to go study ancient Near Eastern mythology.

    @RonF, I’ve read the article too, and again, the article is not about a young woman who thought a Women’s Studies BA was the ticket to a middle-class life and was surprised to learn that there wasn’t a unionized women’s-studies factories with family-wage jobs in her state. She did, in fact, note quite clearly that nobody put a gun to her head and forced her to sign those papers. You bring this article up over and over for the proposition that smart kids go into STEM or something marketable, and it just isn’t that, no matter how often you talk about it.

    I am all for looking hard at schools. As a parent of college-headed kids, I am also all for making kids think about how they are going to pay back those loans. I don’t see that forcing students into expensive private loans because they need to stick to the three R’s makes a lick of sense.

  56. 56
    Robert says:

    It doesn’t seem like you get how this would work, Mythago. Students wouldn’t be “forced into expensive private loans because they need to stick to the three Rs”.

    Students that stuck to the three Rs, or more accurately, who took a degree program that was marketable, would get a Federally-guaranteed public loan. The only students who were “forced” into expensive private loans – that is, asked to pay the actual costs of their education, OMG THE HORROR – would be those who were taking degree programs that were historically correlated with incomes too low to make paying back the loan realistic, AND a loan amount that would be crippling or nonpayable going forward.

    Look, if the income isn’t too low and they can pay back the loan, great. They made their dream work, and now they can pay back the bank that lent them the money. If their income IS too low and they were doomed to default, then in essence their loan was not a loan but a grant (with horrible punitive clauses attached to it) and the taxpayers are covering the whole cost. The taxpayers don’t want to cover the whole cost.

    What is the argument for “we have to make sure that people who probably are going to either default or be brutally impoverished by their loan payments, are able to get those loans in the first place, so that they do not have to face any economic considerations in their decisions about the single largest capital purchase that they will make in their lives.”?

    If it’s “they have the right to roll the dice and take a gamble”, I agree wholeheartedly. They can do that with their own credit, though. not with the taxpayers’.

  57. 57
    mythago says:

    or more accurately, who took a degree program that was marketable

    And we determine that their degree program was marketable by….looking at everyone who ever got that undergraduate degree, regardless of their eventual profession or further education, and taking their ‘average’ income?

    What is the argument for “we can tell who will default or be unable to pay their loans based purely on the income of people who have nothing in common other than taking that major”? Other than boredom and contrariness, I do not get why you are making this argument.

  58. 58
    Robert says:

    I am making the argument because there are tens of thousands, maybe more, young people coming out of college with crushing debt burdens that they are unlikely to be able to pay back without heroic effort, with disastrous consequences to the formation of their adult lives. And while I believe that they should be free to choose that path if they wish it, many to most of them are taking the path because they are not being told of how perilous it is. The schools, as you note, care only about getting the seat filled and the tuition check cashed. The well-meaning mechanism of easy funding silences the price signal that would normally tell them “hey wait a minute”.

    Actuarial analysis is not magical or incomprehensible, and your dubiousness that it could ever work is noted but not relevant, other than to the extent that now we know not to hire you to compile the tables. It would be quite easy for a data miner to ascertain what the maximum loan is for a person getting X degree for which the standard loan payments will not be an overly onerous burden on their typical income. We have to decide what ‘overly onerous’ means, and how much variability to take into account, but after that it’s simple arithmetic.

  59. 59
    Elusis says:

    No. RonF is flat-out saying that the terms, or even existence, of loans should vary in accordance with how much money is made (by some metric) by people holding a degree in that subject.

    As far as I can tell this is just another conservative dog whistle for “Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Latino Studies, and all those other ‘studies’ degrees are a hotbed of soft-headed liberals and should be mocked, derided, and used to scare the angry white aged masses into voting Republican whenever possible.” See also Arizona and its Latino Studies is brainwashing propaganda so let’s ban it law.

  60. 60
    RonF says:

    That’s pretty lazy, Elusis. And cheap. After all, it means you don’t actually have to respond to any logic or reason. And with your addition there’s been enough straw men proposed here to re-shoot the Wizard of Oz.

  61. 61
    Elusis says:

    That’s pretty lazy, Elusis. And cheap.

    Well, you should probably expect as much. After all I got two degrees in theatre, with a minor in Women’s Studies.

    (Sadly for the purposes of anecdote-as-data, I didn’t start mortgaging my future borrowing anything until the graduate degree, and then it was minimal. But I did suck at the public teat attend state schools for both. No, the “just as big as a Midwestern mortgage and will last just as long” school debt didn’t come until I went to get graduate degrees in a properly conservative field: Marriage and Family Therapy.)

  62. 62
    Robert says:

    …So in other words, you pursued the portion of your education that might not have paid off at state schools and without building up any debt. And then when you started doing graduate work, which is of course more expensive, it was part of preparation for a vocation, a reasonably economically productive one.

    Congratulations. You’re totally unaffected by Ron’s idea. Because despite the dread conservative invocation of Women’s Studies, Ron isn’t talking about you, and nor am I. Your collegiate path seems eminently reasonable to me.

    Since Ron proposes a data-driven model for which degrees ought to be assessed with a bit more skepticism, and since that model is based purely in economics without any ideological tagging at all, does your invocation of “Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Latino Studies, and all those other ‘studies’ degrees” mean that you think those degrees are economically without value? Or do you think that Ron (and I) are liars, and when we say “look at the income data” what we really mean is “cook the books and make sure that the whiny-Americans are the ones who always look bad”?

    Because personally, I have only very limited knowledge of what some degree programs will get you on the job market. I would be hesitant to make strong predictions about the programs that I’m not personally informed about, and wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that there are many STEM subdisciplines that don’t pay very well at all. Nor would I be surprised to find that some squishy humanities programs can pay quite well.

    So are you just way more bigoted than I am, or are you assuming that I’m so bigoted that I *must be* talking in code about a certain set of ideological programs?

  63. 63
    mythago says:

    @Robert: “Garbage in, garbage out” is neither magical nor incomprehensible. You keep arguing that we need a process, and therefore anyone who questions what you input into that process is a tax-wasting hater.

    I’m going with contrary; you don’t sound bored.

  64. 64
    Robert says:

    Your claim that the correlation is garbage is unsubstantiated, and contradicted by apparently good data showing that an observable correlation exists, which I provided a citation for. As I have produced evidence and you have not, I will ask you to either produce some evidence that there is any merit to whatever it is you’re claiming – it seems to shift from post to post – or stop making the claim.

    I keep arguing that there is a problem, and suggesting a process. You have acknowledged the problem at least indirectly in noting that your own children will be making these decisions and you hope they have good information with which to work. I have proposed some mechanisms for providing that information; you have done nothing other than spout strawmen about what I secretly think of those who disagree with me.

    You are incorrect; I am growing bored, though not with the problem; rather, with people who insist on wedging every possible viewpoint on solving the problem into a paranoid frame in which the evil ideologues are coming to take away the majors and make everyone study accounting. Whatever.

  65. 65
    Elusis says:

    Robert, I didn’t “do it right” because I’m particularly clever. I just got scholarships because I function well in an educational environment, and could live off that plus my mom’s meager college savings until I hit post-grad degrees #2 and 3.

    What annoys me is that you, and yes I mean both the specific and the global conservative you here, “randomly” reach for a major to illustrate “irresponsible finances” or “dubious use of tax money” or “laughable qualities of the ivory tower” or whatever your axe to grind with higher education is this week, and “somehow” you come up with ____ Studies. Which, as I said previously, is a major shibboleth of the Right. It’s never “ha ha, Family and Consumer Sciences!” or “ha ha, Classical Islamic Literature” (you know better than to do that here, I realize) or “ha ha, Communications” (I mean at least we could have some cross-aisle agreement there that it’s a notorious hideout major for scholarship athletes, right?)

    I mean, at least the oligarchs on the UVa Board had the self-awareness to complain about “Classics and German” instead of _____ Studies.

    What tires me, and I mean this sincerely, it really, really tires me, is that I have pretty much 99.9% certainty that no one who ever “happens” to alight on ___ Studies as a “random” example of something they consider frivolous or useless has actually TAKEN a class in a Women’s Studies, Latino Studies, Fat Studies, Queer Studies, etc. program. It’s all well and good to laugh it up about how misguided the pointy-headed academics and their soft-skulled neo-commie drones are, when you can’t even be bothered to go sit and audit “Women in Film” or “African-Americans During the World Wars” or “Disability and Society” so you could have some better jokes than “ha ha, this exists and people actually think they can make a career out of it!”

    Talk about lazy.

  66. 66
    RonF says:

    Well, elusis, you may be annoyed that people tend to pick on those kinds of studies because they have a political or social issue with the subject matter. C’est la vie. But what you are conveniently glossing over is that the argument is a straw man. I explained above how I selected that particular example. The academic or social relevance of a given set of academic disciplines is not at issue here, and never has been. Nor has a general axe to grind with higher education been the issue, at least from the viewpoint of the kinds of things it teaches and grants degrees in. The issue at hand is whether the government, having set itself up as banks’ guarantor of student loans (while still requiring the student to pay in full with no respite), should therefore act in a fiscally responsible manner – as any co-signer of a loan should do – and make that guarantee conditional on the likelihood of that loan being paid back by taking into account the differences in the income and employment statistics of graduates in the student’s major.

    If you think that the government should make grants available for students in those disciplines, then fine – make that argument and factor in what you regard as the subjective worth of those disciplines. Or you could make the argument that students in such disciplines should get loans, but the loan program should be based in part on a presumption (calculated with the kinds of factors that Robert mentions) that some of the loans will not be paid back. But those arguments are separate from the topic at hand.

    Loans in and of themselves are be made on the basis of the likelihood that the lender will get repaid with interest. Students who borrow money should be realistic about whether or not they are likely to be able to do so at all, or at least without personal ruin. Banks who loan money should be as realistic about lending money for an educational loan as they are about lending money for a mortgage or a car (factoring in the partial subsidy that the Feds provide to keep the interest rate down). But, as mythago pointed out, since the government makes them whole they have no current incentive to do so. Schools, who get full information about a student’s and student’s family’s financial situation when said student applies for financial aid, should also be advising the student about the statistics regarding the odds of being able to make enough money to pay those loans. Arguably it would be worth while to give the schools an incentive by putting them on the hook for part of an unpaid loan. The government, which has a limited pool of money available for education and always will, needs to ensure that said pool of money is used in a fiscally responsible fashion.

    We have the Federal, State and municipal governments trying to protect us from the consequences of all manner of bad decisions, and even trying to protect us from them in the first place by regulating what we drink, what and where we smoke, whether we wear a seat belt when we drive, etc., etc. Why, then, would it not be wise for the government to not necessarily ban but at least not be complicit in a decision that can ruin a kid’s life when he’s in college?

  67. 67
    Robert says:

    Elusis, I didn’t name any majors. I named a metric: reasonably expected (generalized, nationwide) earnings for people with that major, compared with the cost of paying back the loan (individual, specific) that gets you that major. Works for physics. Works for Queer Studies. Works for English Lit.

    If you borrow a kajillion dollars to get a degree in Hyperrigorous Ultraphysics, you’re being a dumbass. If you borrow a kajillion dollars to get a degree in Black Urban Muslim Community Genderqueer studies, you’re being a dumbass. At amounts lower than a kajillion dollars, your dumbassedness is measured by, drumroll, the inverse of Expected Earnings / Cost of Paying It Back.

    Show me someone who has a five-kajillion-dollar-a-year job lined up if they can get the Black Urban Muslim etc. degree safely tucked away, and I’ll cosign the loan myself.

    I do not know how to make it any clearer than this; I do not give the slightest scintilla of a micro-milli-giveashit about the thing that you seem convinced is my primary and main motivation. I took a couple of women’s studies classes; they were pretty insightful. There aren’t many fields of academic study that don’t have something to offer. My only cavil is that the something that they offer ought to be worth more than they charge; otherwise the student is making a bad trade.

    OK?

    (I have in fact gone to pains in this thread to NOT single out fields that are crappy deals, because I don’t have perfect knowledge and could be wrong, and I’d rather not let wrongness on a trivial point get in the way of the great shining laser of truth that is my rightness on the important point. But privately, guardedly, hedged about with “in my view”s and “to the best of my knowledge”s, yes, communications is a shit degree instituted as a broad-based theft scam against the people too dumb really to be in any kind of college.

    So is education, but the value of that degree as a credential to acquire a (relatively crappy, but somewhat stable and reliable) teaching job obscures its utter shit-tasticness in all other respects. Economically speaking, that one isn’t a bad deal at all. I find that rather puzzling, to tell the truth, because pedagogy is an incredibly important and interesting subject, and I don’t get how it’s been turned into such a shit program everywhere.)

  68. First, I think Elusis meant to direct her comments about why people choose ________ Studies programs in these arguments to Ron not Robert, since Ron was the one who named gender studies as an example.

    Second, it strikes me that we ought to be looking at this problem through another lens. Students are graduating with crushing debt, it seems to me, not so much because you can draw any kind of a definitive straight line between the degree they get and their long-term earning potential post-graduation but because college costs have risen so obscenely high. Now, do students need to be educated about this? Yes. Do they need to understand, if they are going to take out a loan, the reality of what that means in terms what their budget might be like when they graduate? Yes. Should they be offered this information during advisement so that they can take it into consideration when thinking about what they see as the connection between the degree they are going to earn and the job they might be doing when they graduate? Yes.

    (And I have to say that, in my experience, we need to be a good deal more creative when advising people about the possible connections between majors and careers. I think, for example, of people who decide to major in music–if only because my son has started to play the bass, is good at it, practices obsessively and this has given rise in some corners of the family to the worry that he will decide he wants to study music and “how will he ever make a living?” When I tell people that there are all kinds of ways of making a living in music, in the music industry, that do not involve trying to make it (big or otherwise) as a working musician and are, consequently, a good deal more stable; and–all else being equal–what music company wouldn’t want someone working for them, in whatever capacity, who is passionate about music–I am often met with blank stares of the gee-I-never-thought-about-that sort. I don’t blame the people staring; I blame college advisors who, in my experience, can be horrendously uncreative when talking to people about career prospects. And I can extrapolate from this example to others, including something like gender or women’s studies, but this is a digression. Back to what I started to say in the first place:)

    College costs are as high as they are for things that have little do with academic/educational value. If the only thing we focus on in discussions like this is the supposed monetary value of a major relative to the cost of borrowing money to get that major, then we are colluding with college administrators who claim that college has to cost as much as it now costs. (And, the way things are going, it’s only going to get more and more expensive.)

  69. 69
    Elusis says:

    Apologies, yes – it’s just that Robert and RonF are both so handsome they’re hard to tell apart.

  70. 70
    Robert says:

    I would be flattered into forgiving you, if Ron wasn’t such an aesthetic trainwreck. Aw heck, I’ll stretch a point for the sake of comity.

  71. 71
    RonF says:

    Richard:

    First, I think Elusis meant to direct her comments about why people choose ________ Studies programs in these arguments to Ron not Robert, since Ron was the one who named gender studies as an example.

    Again misrepresenting my point. I never questioned why people would choose to pursue Gender and Women’s Studies as a major. I questioned the wisdom of the taxpayers loaning someone large sums of money to do so, and expecting them to pay it back.

    Lord, you people are sensitive on this. Just about every commenter at some point has taken offense at my selection of that major as an example and has attacked that instead of actually addressing my point. It’s as if you don’t actually have a logical reason for disputing it.

    simple.truth:

    I work in computer support. I’ve worked in computer support for seven years. Guess who doesn’t have a degree in computers?

    I’ve been working in IT since about 1983. Good God, that was a frightening thing to write! Anyway, my degrees are a B.S. in Biology and an M.S. in Biochemistry. Go figure. And back then there were linguists hired as programmers, etc. But would any of us get an entry-level job TODAY in IT with those degrees? Not so much. You’d have to get a job in something else and then slide in the back door – which is kind of what I did.

    Richard:

    Students are graduating with crushing debt, it seems to me, not so much because you can draw any kind of a definitive straight line between the degree they get and their long-term earning potential post-graduation but because college costs have risen so obscenely high.

    Both are factors. “Why do you charge $40,000 in tuition for a degree in ‘x’?” is as fair a question as “Why did you borrow $100,000 to get a degree in ‘x’?” But is unfortunately asked a great deal less.

    College costs are as high as they are for things that have little do with academic/educational value. If the only thing we focus on in discussions like this is the supposed monetary value of a major relative to the cost of borrowing money to get that major, then we are colluding with college administrators who claim that college has to cost as much as it now costs.

    Hear, hear. Although asking one question does not making asking the other invalid. But the cost of college has gone up 2x the rate of inflation for years. Why? Justify this. The number of administrators at colleges and universities has increased so much that they outnumber the teaching faculty? Why? Don’t tell me that there’s not a ton of fat that could be cut out of that. But how often do we see news stories or government inquiries on the matter?

  72. 72
    RonF says:

    I see that Elusis is yet another victim of my stunning physique and dashing good looks. Such a burden I carry.

  73. Ron:

    I never questioned why people would choose to pursue Gender and Women’s Studies as a major. I questioned the wisdom of the taxpayers loaning someone large sums of money to do so, and expecting them to pay it back.

    That may be true, but it is also disingenuous to suggest that an otherwise disinterested perspective on dollars and cents the only reason people choose fields like Women’s Studies when giving examples in arguments like yours. I am not saying anything about you here–you have explained why you chose the example you did. I am just pointing out that it fits into a pattern.

    By way of example, and of going back to some of Mythago’s points, here is a headline from today’s New York Times: Job Prospects Are Dimming for Radiology Trainees. One of the points the article makes is that:

    Recent radiology graduates with huge medical school debts are having trouble finding work, let alone the $400,000-and-up dream jobs that beckoned as they signed on for five to seven years of relatively low-paid labor as trainees. On Internet forums, younger radiology residents agonize about whether it is too late to switch tracks.

    These people signed on to this profession five to seven years ago when radiology was a dream job, Now there are people with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to repay and job prospects that, while still paying (according to the article) twice as much as a family doctor (if they can get a job), still leave them struggling to repay their loans.

    Several things:

    1. While I have no doubt that you would say “Precisely!” and that you would of course, then, include radiology in your list of perhaps questionable majors when it comes to loans, I wonder how many times we will hear people give radiology as an example in discussions like these, as opposed to gender studies or women’s studies, or anthropology, or African American studies, or even English (and I should absolutely write a post about the fact that while I am teaching in an English department, what I teach most of the time bears very little resemblance to what I went to school to study, but that is another topic of conversation).

    2. As the example of radiology shows, as the example of law school showed (if I remember correctly) some time ago–and this goes in part to some of what mythago was saying–the list one could make of majors that would be questionable in terms of loans changes over time in ways that cannot be predicted, and so even assuming we could make such a list and use it effectively and productively (big assumption), how that list would be maintained over time raises all kinds of questions.

    “Why do you charge $40,000 in tuition for a degree in ‘x’?” is as fair a question as “Why did you borrow $100,000 to get a degree in ‘x’?” But is unfortunately asked a great deal less.

    I agree that both questions are fair, though I would change your second one to “Why are you willing to borrow $100,000 to get a degree in ‘x’?”, but they are not, in my mind, separable questions. The amount I have to borrow is directly related to the cost of tuition. You are right that there may be circumstances under which it is unwise for me to borrow/for a bank to lend the amount of money I need, but to suggest that the problem of how we value a college education, in any major, starts there is to put the cart before the horse, I think.

  74. 74
    Robert says:

    Good points all, Richard. I would add that there’s an additional connection: availability of loans is often a driver of price. The supply of seats is huge and elastic, so a marginal dollar in new loans is a capturable profit dollar to all the schools it could go to. So the schools bid for students, often with amenities and lifestyle enhancements, sometimes with academic quality, all of which cost$. There’s a bit of a vicious circle too, with “you must get an education to make it” translating into everyone who possibly can going out to get an education, driving down the value of those educations as signals of differential excellence, increasing the pressure to “get an education so you can make it” etc. Further complicating it is the fact that, especially at that age, loans don’t feel “real” and to the student, the education feels “free”. (The much-wiser student ten years in the future, alas, isn’t in the decision loop.)

    When things are must-haves rather than marginally useful choices, and when something feels like someone else is paying for it, the tendency to discriminate on price is weakened – the best school possible, and damn the expense! Schools have the least price-conscious customers in history, and it’s hard to find fault with them for working with that fact. (I’ll save the fault-finding for schools that are actively dishonest about prospects for their graduates.)

  75. 75
    RonF says:

    Certainly the demand for graduates in a given discipline can change based in changes for both supply (the number of graduates/year) and demand (COBOL programming was a GREAT skill to have – 20 years ago …). If either one changes faster than it takes one to get the training/degree in it, you’re going to see those variations. That factors into the information that people would take a look at. But the fact that looking at employment trends for given degrees isn’t perfect (law school, anyone?) doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

    The amount I have to borrow is directly related to the cost of tuition.

    Ah, but you’re not locked into that tuition. You can find a cheaper school. You can decide to pursue a different major that history indicates is, if not guaranteed, at least far more likely to yield a certain level of future income. You can decide to join the military or the Peace Corps. You can decide to join an apprentice program and become a welder. You have options – you don’t have to go to that school and get a degree in that major.

    In any case, I expect that fixing the college cost model won’t be a quick exercise. I don’t want to lose a few years of kids’ lives down the debt rat hole while working to fix the institutional problem. We’re in a hole. Let’s stop digging right now. Then we can climb out and fill the hole in.

    Besides, the process of “We’re not giving you a loan to pursue a B.A. in underwater basket weaving at Expensive Private College or Enormous State University because there hasn’t been a market for it for a long time” will lead to informed kids deciding not to engage in ineffective majors at ineffective schools (effective defined in this context as contracted debt vs. expected earnings). Consider the pressure that will put on the schools to change their cost model.

  76. RonF:

    But the fact that looking at employment trends for given degrees isn’t perfect (law school, anyone?) doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

    It makes perfect sense to me to ask why someone would want to borrow however many hundreds of thousands of dollars it would cost to attend, for example, New York University (just because it’s in my own backyard) for four years (assuming a student who actually graduates on time), but it makes sense to me to ask that question for any major, not because I think all majors are created equally–clearly they are not–but because of the unpredictability of which majors will be worth how much in terms of possible employment. It makes more sense to me to ask the person who wants to borrow that much money why NYU is so much different from/better than the other, more affordable undergraduate institutions that, more or less, offer precisely the same majors, coursework and so on. It makes sense to ask this person if they understand what borrowing $100,000+ at whatever interest rate will mean in terms of how much money they will have to pay for how long in order to pay the loan back, and if they understand that this will likely represent a healthy chunk of their monthly paycheck no matter how much money they make once they get their first job.

    So many students do not know what they want to major in when they enter college, and so many students change their majors at least once after they enter college, that connecting loans to degrees just doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t mean I think students should not be given information about the employment prospects of certain degrees, though I think, as I suggested above, we need to be a good deal more creative in how we think about presenting that kind of information. Here, for example, is a document prepared by the University of Tennessee that gives an overview of the kinds of jobs that an English major might lead to. It is a far cry from the popular assumption that studying English (which means, really, writing and literature) is for people who want to become college professors, wear jackets with elbow patches, smoke pipes and talk all day about, or write, books. And I have no doubt that you could create a similar kind of table for just about any major that is offered.

    Now, granted, the one thing this chart does not contain is information about average salaries for these different jobs, and I do think that is useful information to give as a benchmark for students to think about the standard of living they might want to have. (Indeed, when I recently wrote a proposal for an Associates Degree in Creative Writing, one of the things I had to include was information about the different levels of income for the different professions that writers enter.) But that is quite different from assigning a monetary value to a degree–which was also one of Mythago’s very cogent points: that there is a huge difference between discussing the salaries of the various jobs a student might get out of school and trying to put a monetary value on the degree he or she earned as an undergraduate.

    I could go on–as you can tell, I have a lot to say about this–but I will stop here for now.

  77. 77
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    “…the list one could make of majors that would be questionable in terms of loans changes over time in ways that cannot be predicted”

    I suspect that prediction is possible– once everyone knows that a major will lead to a good job, that major will attract more people than there are jobs for them.

  78. 78
    KellyK says:

    If you were going to use the major in determining whether to approve a loan, I think you would need a way to account for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree, but aren’t picky about the major. (One of the big factors driving the cost of degrees seems to be that employers want people with a bachelor’s for everything.) Because that includes entry-level jobs in a lot of fields, it would be hard to work in, but it’s important to note that even if you major in Underwater Basketweaving, there are jobs that having a bachelor’s qualifies you for that have nothing to do with Underwater Basketweaving.

  79. 79
    Robert says:

    Those jobs are already accounted for in the ‘average income’ statistic.

  80. 80
    KellyK says:

    I don’t know that average income is a good marker for “available income” though, because there’s no way to determine what percentage of those people could be making more with the same degree. I mean, if I leave my cushy defense contractor job where they pay me $30 an hour to translate programmer-speak into English sentences and beat Microsoft Word into submission to go teach Shakespeare and Chaucer at a private high school, I’ll take a giant pay cut. But my ability to earn hasn’t changed. Heck, for that matter, I already am self-selecting out of a higher income every time supervisor positions come around and I don’t apply for them, so even with a good job, I’m dragging the average down and making the prospects look bleaker for other English majors.

    With a large group of people, you can assume that choices will kind of balance out, but I would expect individual choices to skew the average low. You can always choose to earn less than whatever your “real earning power” is by working fewer hours or a lower-paying job, but, by definition, you can’t just choose to make more.

    To me, it would make more sense to look at all the available jobs and their earning power, rather than simply averaging the income of graduates in a given major. You would have to figure out a way to take into account how “available” they actually are, so that high-paying jobs that are ridiculously hard to get don’t skew the numbers horribly. Maybe some kind of weighted average that multiplies salary in a given field by your odds of actually getting that job.

  81. 81
    Robert says:

    Valid points by and large, Kelly. I’m using ‘average income’ as rhetorical shorthand here; any actual system would have to look at a more complex, though not unmanageably so, set of numbers.

  82. 82
    RonF says:

    Here we go. This. This is absurd.

    McDonald’s want ad demands bachelor’s degree, two years experience for cashier

    If a high school education isn’t sufficient to run a McDonald’s cash register, there’s something very, very wrong with the high schools in Massachusetts.

  83. 83
    Robert says:

    Ron, it’s not absurd at all. The employer is merely adjusting the bar for the quality of applicants s/he has come to expect for the position. It’s a cliche these days that the bachelor’s degree of today has roughly the same signaling function that a high school diploma had 50 years ago; it indicates that this is a person who desired an education, who did a real but attainable amount of “extra” work to pursue that education above what society expected of them, and who has a certain minimum ability to navigate bureaucracy, process, arbitrary hoop-jumping, etc.

    In all transactional environments, people look for the best deal that they can get. I lived briefly in LA back in the 90s; it is similarly a cliche that a lot of the country’s most conventionally-attractive women go to LA for the film industry. I dated better-looking women in LA than I did in Seattle, my previous home…not because I got better-looking or had more status or improved relational skills, but because the Xth percentile of attractiveness was higher in LA than in other places. X stays the same, but the environment changes.

  84. 84
    RonF says:

    O.K. That McDonald’s ad turns out to be bogus. Mind you, it WAS published by the McDonald’s in question – but it turns out to have been an error on their part, and they’ve withdrawn it.

  85. 85
    Melissa Stoey says:

    ‘…we lose sight of the fact that the purpose of a college education in a democratic society is not to train people for work. Rather, the purpose of a college education in a democratic society is to nurture an engaged and active citizenry.”

    However, this thinking is why countries like India have graduates that are being recruited by American companies, because our country fails to produce enough qualified candidates because it focuses too much on a “liberal, well-rounded education” instead of concentrating on the real skills needed for today’s workplace. In India their schooling concentrates solely on the skills required for the field they wish to enter. While we’re wasting time on General Education requirements, they’re taking another programming course or engineering course – no wasting time on a Wellness class (gym) or learning a second language like French which they’ll never use.

  86. Melissa,

    I’d be very curious to know how you know this about schooling in India. Do you have syllabi, curricula, policy statements? And how much do you know about the relationship between secondary and higher education there, which often has something to do with the different shapes that higher ed can take from one country to another? I’m asking these questions seriously. I have no idea if you are correct or not in your assertions and I’d really like to know what you base them on.