Category Archives: Higher education

The janitor with a Ph.D.

There are 5,057 janitors with a doctorate or professional degree, according to Richard Vedder, who writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Personally, I’m suspicious that the number inflated, though I agree with Vedder’ larger point, which is that we have a mismatch between public needs and our public approach to higher education.

“All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.” These jobs include parking lot attendant, wait staff, and bartenders.

For more fun, take a look at this chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Vedder concedes that the experience of going to college has value, but then asks whether that justifies the public investment. Good question.

By the way, be sure to read the comments attached to the article. Some make valuable points. Some, like the one below, border on parody:

Just imagine what our democracy might be like if truck drivers read Sartre, or if restaurant servers studied astronomy, or if garbage collectors debated the newest trends in evolutionary biology, or if housewives and machine operators read and discussed New Historicist literary theory.

I’m as interested in New Historicist literary theory (whatever that is) as the next person, and there’s no problem with mechanics holding advanced degrees in philosophy–as long as said people have paid for the costs of their education. But higher education involves a variety of subsidies, meaning that it’s entirely valid to question how tax dollars are being spent.


Is college a debt-fueled asset bubble?

President Obama wants to see the number of people with college degrees increase by 50 percent. Unfortunately, the attempt to get to that goal (through various taxpayer subsidies and public encouragements) could easily lead to wasted taxpayer funding, unnecessary personal debt, and wasted years.

Take for example, Amanda Magnus, a young woman profiled by Richard Vedder in a guest column he wrote for Forbes magazine. Magnus did get her bachelors degree, but now she has  a debt of $50,000 and few prospects for a good-paying job. Multiply that situation by thousands of graduates across the country and you’ve got a problem.

But at least Magnus has a degree; for every five students who start a four-year degree, only three finish within six years. What of the others? Most likely they never earn that degree–and quite possibly end up with a lot of debt.

This situation would be bad enough if the problems were simply confined to thousands of personal stories. But the debt incurred by college non-graduates (or even college grads who can’t get work in cinema or journalism, such as Magnu) robs the economy of valuable investments in businesses or even consumer purchases.

Even though students are taking on an increasing amount of legal responsibility through taking on more and more loans and receiving fewer grants, college imposes financial costs on society. This prompts Vedder to ask, “Why should society subsidize people to go to college for five or six years in order to take jobs requiring at most a high school education and some on-the-job training?” We might be witnessing, he warns, a “debt-fueled asset bubble.”

As someone who has not one but two college degrees–and liberal arts degrees at that–it pains me to say that Vedder is onto something. College has become an expensive screening device, a signal to employers that a person is willing to put up with a certain amount of work and discipline to get a degree.

As some people–including my professors–would say, the measure of a college education isn’t merely any extra money that a person might earn throughout his work history as a result. And they’re right. A college education can result in a person receiving the benefits of the examined life, wrestling with important philosophical questions that can’t be captured by dollars and cents.

But at some point, we–that is, policy makers and the citizens at large–need to question the utility of public subsidies to such pursuits.

Bloat on Campus

A new report on American colleges and universities reveals a problem with bloat:

Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.

The problem, says author Jay P. Greene, is the third-party payment system, in which governments pay a substantial portion of the costs of running universities. Of course, in K-12 education, governments pay all the costs of operation. While many parents of K-12 students do pay  taxes (along with everyone else), even they don’t pay fees directly to the school, aside from incidentals such as lab fees or fees for participating on sports teams.

For many reasons, some of them good, we don’t expect poor families to pay for the costs of educating their children. That’s why we have government-run public school systems. But at least a voucher system or its equivalent would make those parents (and in fact, all parents) acutely aware of the costs of schooling. That, in turn, would provide some market discipline on the costs of schools. After all, which is more powerful: 1,000 parents who are watching the dollars and cents spent for their children’s education, or 100 members of a legislature?

Save money with CLEP and AP

For most children, K-12 education is geared around seat time: Only after you put in the requisite number of days for the required numbers of years do you get your diploma, and then, perhaps, you move onto college.

What if we collapse that whole approach–or at least make an alternative available to willing students–by basing progress on performance rather than time in school?

A friend pointed me to College Plus!, which bills itself as “a revolutionary Christian based distance learning program helping students earn their fully accredited bachelor’s degree in a fraction of the time and cost of the traditional university system.” It claims that “CollegePlus! students typically finish their fully accredited degrees in two years or less.” (I’m guessing there are similar, non-religious resources out there; I mention College Plus because that’s the resource I stumbled upon.)

That, in turn, could mean a significant savings in tuition and the opportunity cost of spending four (or five or six) years in college. College Plus! says that it could cost a student $15,000 for an entire degree–which is a bargain, compared with the conventional approach.

The company makes it money by offering coaching services. Students earn their college credits through DANTES (limited to people with an affiliation with the U.S. Department of Defense) and CLEP.

CLEP, or the College-level examination program, offers (at the moment) 33 different exams for which students can earn college credit at participating institutions. The cost of a test is $77, which is about the going rate for a single textbook these days, to say nothing of tuition. CLEP is a service of the College Board, which administers the SAT, an admissions test commonly used, especially on the East Coast. You can purchase study guides for each test from the board.

DSST, meanwhile, “allows you to receive college credits for learning acquired outside the traditional classroom perhaps from reading, on-the-job training, or independent study.” It says that “almost 2,000” colleges grant credit to people who pass one or more of its 38 tests, which cost $80.

And many students now take advantage of Advanced Placement, which, like CLEP, is offered by the College Board. It administers 30 different tests. Students take a class and then a test, with a successful score leading to college credit. Most students take an AP class through the public school system (either traditional schools or an online charter or state school), but if you’re willing to part with some cash, you can take take an AP test after doing some independent study. The College Board offers some sample questions and topic outlines.

Under the right conditions, your family could save a lot of money–and your child could be spared tens of thousands of dollars of debt in student loans–by some advanced planning.

Too few finish college, or take too much time

Education Week reports on some sobering statistics about college, courtesy of information from the U.S. Department of Education:

  1. One-third of people who start a college education still haven’t finished it six years later. In other words,
  2. Slightly more than one-third of all students–36 percent–finish their degree within 4 years of starting it.
  3. Only 25% of people who start a two-year program at a community college are finished with it after 3 years.
  4. “It now takes the majority of students at least six years to earn a bachelor’s degree.” I don’t know if that means if a majority of all students who start actually finish, and take on average 6+ years (bad enough) or if it means that of those who actually do finish, a majority take 6+ years (even worse).

Despite the considerable drop-out rate, President Obama wants to encourage even more people to try college: “It’s essential that we put a college degree in reach of everyone who wants it.”

Are we witnessing a “higher-education bubble?”

University of California system considers online degree

This could be big in the world of higher education: The University of California is considering setting up a program by which students could earn an undergraduate degree online.

Here’s the lead paragraph of an article in the Christian Science Monitor:  “The University of California – considered to be America’s top public university – hopes to become the country’s first top-tier research institution to offer a bachelor’s degree over the Internet that is comparable in quality to its campus program.”

Will new common core standards increase the drop-out rate?

Chester E. Finn Jr., whose Thomas Fordham Institute is a booster of national educational standards, worries that the Common Core curriculum being discussed for 48 states (including Kansas) may be pushing more high-school students to drop out.

I’m by no means the only person with doubts about the wisdom and economic utility of making college universal. My immediate concern, however, is that even as raising the K-12 academic bar does great good for a great many people, it will also discourage others. Faithfully “enforced,” it could worsen the dropout rate even as it better prepares those who complete high school to succeed in college and the more challenging occupations.

He also calls for new, meaningful paths for high school students who aren’t interested in going to college, a situation in which “each path leads to a worthwhile place—but not all of them to college.”

One possibility, he said, is outlined in the report Tough Choices or Tough Times, which has already been adopted in various degrees by six states. I had some favorable things to say about the report back in 2007 (PDF). It’s hard to know, however, whether public schooling as we know it is able to re-engineer itself along the lines that Finn desires.

Is there a bubble in higher education?

Glenn H. Reynolds, a professor at the University of Tennessee, argues that the country is afflicted with a “bubble” in higher education, with students who chase degrees ending up with unsustainable debt. He predicts that fundamental change is on the horizon:

My question is whether traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or whether — as Anya Kamenetz suggests in her new book, “DIY U” — the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of “edupunks” who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests.

He concludes that today’s traditional institutions won’t be up to the task, which is in keeping with the theory of disruptive innovation that Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has applied to K-12 education.

And it looks like disruption may be hitting the world of higher education in a major way, with the country’s largest private-sector employer–Wal-Mart–hooking up with a for-profit university in a way that lets its employees get a degree through online learning. Employees will get a 15% discount on tuition at American Public University, and Wal-Mart will provide some tuition assistance. The goal, as the New York Times puts it, is “to help employees get more education and to build a better work force.”

A friend of mine, a university professor in the Midwest, said: “I find it very interesting that Wal Mart chose to team with a for-profit university to train its employees rather than a typical bricks-and-mortar non-profit university. And notice that Wal Mart has no interest in having its people trained in any ‘studies’ discipline.”

Ten reasons why college may not be for you

If you’re a high school student, should you plan to attend college? Maybe. Or maybe not. Here are ten reasons not to go to college. One reason touches directly on high school: Some high school students don’t get sufficient preparation.

Tagging college students

I’m not sure what to think of this: Northern Arizona University will be using federal stimulus money to install scanning equipment that, in conjunction with student ID cards,  will  let professors know which students showed up for class and which ones did not. This will help professors who include attendance as a component of a class grade.

Some students say this smacks of1984, since the equipment could theoretically be used to track their movement from classroom to classroom or even to anywhere on the campus. But in the Orwell novel, surveillance was conducted on the entire population, and certainly no person is required to sign up for college classes.

College that uses this sort of system would certainly get a bad reputation among college-bound people. I’m also not sure what’s to prevent a student who wishes to skip class from giving her card to a friend who will in fact show up.

How Much is that College Degree Worth?

How much is a college degree worth? That’s a question of unending debate. There are a number of costs and benefits to going to college. The most obvious cost is financial–tuition, room and board, books, not to mention forgone opportunities to earn an income. For some students, they face the problem of never having the college experience “click” for them.

On the benefits side, you’ve got the chance to indulge the intellect and develop intellectual skills that will serve you later. There’s also the chance to attend a lot of parties and sporting events, cultural activities, and meeting people from around the country and around the world.

Of course, the financial side of things looms large, too. Having a college degree has become a defacto screening device for employers, and it also offers financial rewards. But how large is that reward? The Wall Street Journal offers some numbers.

The College Board has in the past put the number at $800,000, as in that’s how much a college graduate, on average, will earn over what a high school graduate would earn. But others question that number. First of all, the cost of attending college continues to grow at a rate that outpaces inflation.

They [the estimates] don’t take into account deductions from income taxes or breaks in employment. Nor do they factor in debt, particularly student debt loads, which have ballooned for both public and private colleges in recent years. In addition, the income data used for the Census estimates is from 1999, when total expenses for tuition and fees at the average four-year private college were $15,518 per year. For the 2009-10 school year, that number has risen to $26,273, and it continues to increase at a rate higher than inflation.

Dr. Schneider estimated the actual lifetime-earnings advantage for college graduates is a mere $279,893 in report he wrote last year. He included tuition payments and discounted earning streams, putting them into present value. He also used actual salary data for graduates 10 years after they completed their degrees to measure incomes. Even among graduates of top-tier institutions, the earnings came in well below the million-dollar mark, he says.

As the story also points out, averages are … averages, and don’t apply to each person. You may love what you’re doing and do well financially without a college degree–or be stuck in an unsatisfying job that doesn’t pay as much as you might earn doing something else.

I wouldn’t tell anyone “don’t go to college.” But each student must carefully consider himself. It’s good for many people, but not for all. If you’re uncertain about going to college, spending a year doing something else–a ‘gap year’ after high school–may be a good time to sort things out.

What’s the implication for K-12 education? By all means we should give high school students the opportunities to earn college credits through AP classes, whether in the classroom or in online venues. (Indeed, online classes may be a godsend for academic high-achievers attending schools that don’t otherwise have suitable classes for them.)  But  perhaps we should also look into restructuring K-12 so that students interested in something than attending college can get adequate training. Sen. Steve Abrams is one person who has been proposing such an approach. A report published by a commission several years ago, “Tough Choices or Tough Times,” is another. Whatever we do, we should do more to tailor the schooling experience to the wants and needs of students.

Are “Profit” and “Education” Incompatible?

Profit-seeking in education? Not exactly. After all, plenty of businesses make money in education, selling textbooks, tests, school supplies, and curriculum aids of various sorts.

The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy points out that for-profit colleges are the fastest-growing institutions in higher education.

Governor Signs Budget

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has signed the new budget of about $13 billion. When it came to education, she rejected the opportunity to use federal stimulus money for a one-time use, which is exactly what it should be used for:

According to the Kansas City Star,

“In signing the budget Monday, the governor vetoed the Legislature’s proposal to spend federal stimulus money for higher education solely on deferred maintenance.

Sebelius said her veto would allow the state Board of Regents to use the estimated $40 million in federal funds both to finance deferred maintenance and to help underwrite a proposal to freeze in-state tuition in the 2009-10 school year.”

That’s unfortunate.  If state-supported universities have deferred maintenance, that represents money that is going to have to be spent some time or another. While I’m not a fan of the stimulus package, it could have helped the state clear out some of that backlog. In other words, it would offer a solution to a current problem.

On the other hand, the governor prefers to roll the money into university budgets in a way that lets them subsidize current expenses. Parents of students may appreciate the tuition freeze (and certainly it is politically popular). But what happens when the stimulus money runs out? Tuition will have to be raised, by an amount greater than would have been the case.

Pro Athletes Going Back to School

Normally we keep a pretty tight focus here, limiting the blog to something that has an obvious connection to Kansas. But this next item is of interest to anyone (and that would be a lot of us) who is a fan of professional sports.

The Houston Chronicle (“Back to College,” July 19) tells a few tales of professional athletes, retired and active, who are going back to finish the college programs they interrupted by entering the big leagues.

Obviously, these individuals don’t need a four-year degree for financial reasons; the ones mentioned in the article are or should soon be financially set for life, as long as they don’t blow all their money. Some cite the need to speak honestly to youth on the need to pursue a good education, others sense the need to achieve, still others seek the tools to enter a new profession.

Said an associate director of athletics at the University of Houston: “No matter how much money they’ve made, they always want that degree. There’s always that door that was never closed.”

Multiple Institutions, One Goal

We don’t comment much on higher education issues around here–K-12 education is important enough–but an article about higher education in Sedgwick County caught our eye. Butler Community College is setting up a facility on the north side of Wichita, the better to attract more Hispanic students.

By opening an office at Evergreen, Butler Community College is in direct competition with Wichita State University for students.


The limited amount of students to recruit and the direct competition from Butler doesn’t worry WSU recruiter Alicia Nowell, who concentrates on the Wichita school district.


[Butler’s Anna] Villarreal said that the competition really comes down to giving all students a piece of the real world on campus.

One ailment afflicting education in general is the idea that competition among educational institutions for students is somehow a bad idea or even contrary to the goals of education.
Granted, competition can be difficult, if you’re the one providing the good or service. Not everyone relishes being pushed to change and keep one step ahead of somebody else. But competition is a way of life, and the key to economic success.

Why should education be any different? In fact, it’s not, at least to a limited extent. Ask any real estate agent in a metropolitan area, and you’ll find that house buyers are often quite concerned about competition: which one of these districts is the best? Even some school districts–Topeka is perhaps the most recent example we have seen–are aware of the logic of competition. The Topeka district is touting itself to real estate agents. In higher education, KU and KSU compete for students, not only against each other, but against Emporia State, Fort Hays State, private colleges, and even institutions across the country.

One thing that K-12 could benefit from is an increased use of competition among schools, facilitated by vouchers, tuition tax credits, a vigorous open enrollment atmosphere, a liberalized charter school law, and the like.

After all, if the goal if education, rather than the maintenance of facilities and organizations, competition is key.

(Butler pursues Hispanic students in Wichita, Wichita Eagle, June 11, 2007)

New Authority for Technical Education Created

From the Wichita Eagle:

Kansas has taken the first step toward standardized statewide technical education programs, certification, credits and costs with the establishment of the Postsecondary Technical Education Authority. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius signed a law creating the authority and authorizing $917,000 in funding last week.

The authority, a seven-member board structured within the Board of Regents, will oversee all facets of technical education classes, whether offered by community colleges, technical schools or Regents institutions. It was created on the recommendation of the Kansas Technical College and Vocational School Commission, which worked for more than a year to devise a plan for moving technical education forward.

(7-member board to oversee state’s technical training, May 20)

Lessons from China?

Writing in the Kansas City Star, Sen. Chris Steineger (Kansas City, Kansas) thinks that “China’s committment to education” is an economic advantage.

True enough, a well-educated workforce is important. But we’re not sure what to make of some of the senator’s observations, which include the fact that Chinese universities (at the least the ones he visited) have a 10p.m. curfew. Chinese universities also have spartan accommodations.

The easy way out for Americans to increase their “commitment to education” is, of course, to increase funding. But is putting more money into the same old systems–to be fair, not something that Steineger says in this piece–really going to get us far?

Source: AS I SEE IT: China’s advantage is its commitment to education, January 7, KC Star

Lottery for Scholarships?

The Pittsburgh Morning Sun editorializes in favor of using state lottery money for college scholarships.

Source: “Still better way to  use lottery money,”

Remedial Education in College

Six years ago, state universities in Kansas started to impose more stringent admissions requirements. That has had an effect on who enters the four-year schools, and who goes to community college.

After requiring a 2.0 GPA of incoming freshmen (or an ACT of 21 or better, or graduation in the top third of the high school class), universities dropped some remedial classes.

Says John Milburn, the tighter standards brought changes at both the secondary and post-secondary level:

“The standards forced high schools to refine their curricula, offering more pre-college courses, such as advanced math, English, chemistry and physics. Students also must take a course in computer technology.

Colleges saved some resources by dropping remedial math and English courses, reasoning that those who lack adequate grades could polish those skills at community college.”

Enrollment at the four-year institutions has actually increased since 2002, so concerns about restricting access may have been misplaced.

In any case, it’s bad enough that community colleges must offer remedial education, but it’s good that there’s been a trend away from the even more expensive four-year colleges offering a replay of high school.

Source: Who should go to college?, Wichita Eagle, January 3

Educational Tax Deductions

The State of Kansas allows families to get a tax deduction for education, including education from a private institution.

Not only that, but it kicks in some matching funds!

Sounds like a dream-come-true for those of us who favor increased use of competition and parental choice for K-12 education.

Except it’s not something that happens in K-12. It’s for college and university education, through “529 plans.”

Source: Tax Deduction Available to Kansans, WIBW, Kansas State Treasurer web site

Fort Hays State: More Students Study Virtually than On Campus

Now this is interesting: Fort Hays State University now enrolls more students in its virtual college than on its physical campus.

Perhaps k-12 schools will follow this example and make more of technology. A virtual charter school would be one way to do it.

Myths about Private Education

There are a lot of myths about education provided by privately-run organizations. The Salina Journal provides a story that, in talking about private colleges in Kansas, shows that commonly held assumptions don’t always reflect reality.

Are private colleges only for a population that is white and wealthy? Not any more than public colleges are. According to statistics collected by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities,

minorities make up 30 percent of enrollment at private colleges, but just 27 percent at state schools. And students from families with incomes below $50,000 make up 37 percent of private school enrollment, and 38 percent of state college enrollment.

We don’t pretend that private colleges are perfect, nor that higher education in general is perfect. But if we look at the statistics of enrollment–in which public aid follows the student, much like a voucher–we see that privately run institutions can be strong in providing an education.

“Public education” does not have to mean only “government-run schools.” Higher education already shows us that.

K State to Expand ESL Program

Here’s some innovation, thanks to higher education: K State is launching an effort to increase the number of elementary school teachers who can teach English as a second language.

As an AP wire story says, “Students at three community colleges will be able to get bachelor’s degrees in elementary education with an emphasis on English as a second language, without having to travel to KSU in Manhattan.”

With a growing population of non-English speakers in the state, that’s a good thing.

Though universities, like school districts, receive funds from the state, they serve a customer base that finds it easier to move around. In other words, they must be more entrepreneurial. And in this case, that’s good for elementary school teachers–and their students, who ironically, are much more constrained in their ability to choose.