Debt and Career Choices

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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253 Responses

  1. Will H. says:

    I hate to point out the obvious, Mike, but about the best way to make student loans cheaper would be to reduce the cost of higher education.
    I would want my kids to go to college to, but not necessarily to get a degree. With half of college graduates unemployed these days, I believe the market has already determined what a college degree is worth, and the perception has yet to catch up.
    That said, I think there are a lot of people that really need to flunk out of college.
    Apprenticeship programs typically look for applicants in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. They do accept others. I worked with a third-year apprentice that was 42, and I’ve worked with a journeyman that was 25.
    Were it my daughter, and I was trying to help her pick an apprenticeship program, I would go with the IBEW, the IUOE, the millwrights, the SMWIA, and the sprinkler fitters, and in that order; and until you’ve applied three times, you really haven’t received an answer.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Will H. says:

      I agree on lowering the cost of tuition Will. Another awesome idea would probably be to have some kind of certification program where you do your two years of basics and then graduate with a general associates degree. Afterall, those employers that are willing to hire college graduates regardless of their majors really only care that they have had English 101 and 102 and some college-level math.Report

      • aaron david in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        I don’t think that is true, about the writing and the math.  In a lot of cases, it is a sorting method, simply allowing institutions to reduce the amount of applicants/resumes for any given job.Report

      • What do you count as college-level math?  Granted I’m an old fart, but back in the day, the State U that I attended considered calculus as the lowest level of “college” math; everything below that was “remedial”.  Of course, the math department ended up teaching a lot of sections of remedial math. There’s currently a boom in math instruction at US community colleges — almost all of it pre-calculus.  Whatever happened to the notion that a college-prep track in high school that qualified you to go to a four-year school ought to include four years of math?Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Michael Cain says:


          Yeah, see, I knew the guy who got the highest score on the state physics exam (Pennsylvania, not Idaho, mind)… he failed algebra four times in a row (and was still “failing” when he got that score).

          College prep includes at least three years of math (that’s algebra, geometry, algebra two — precalc optional, because what english major really needs it??).

          Community colleges get populated by a lot of people who either want a “high school equivalent’ or want a four year program but are currently in trades and other things. Busy people, generally older, probably forgot half the stuff you think they should have learned in high school.Report

          • Michael Cain in reply to Kimmi says:

            To take each point in order…

            Real physics (ie, with calculus) or fake physics (without)?  That’s not really a fair question, I suppose.  But the “why” part of most physics requires calculus and/or basic differential equations, and the problems are complex enough that you can’t work them without good algebra skills.  First-semester calculus is where a lot of people really learn algebra and trig.

            If the liberal arts people want to tell me that four years of high school English isn’t enough, and that I have to take “college level” composition and what-not even though I’m a math/comp sci double major, then I’m inclined to respond that the English majors should have to take “college level” math, which means calculus.  In that case the answer is no, three years of high-school math isn’t enough.  Actually, a real composition class, where the students are required to turn in writing and get feedback on it every class, would be enormously valuable to technical people.  I took one in high-school and have always been glad I did.  My undergraduate school called the class “composition,” but it was really just literature, taught by a particularly lazy grad student, and was essentially a waste of tuition.

            I’m teaching first-semester calculus at a community college this term, and have visited several of the “remedial” math classes.  They are full of recent high-school grads who are now taking the classes they should have taken in high school before going off to a four-year school.  Here in Colorado, the four-year state schools are required to accept credits from the community colleges for a number of first- and second-year classes, so it’s enormously cheaper to live at home and pay community college tuition for a year before heading off.  The flip side of the requirement that credits be transferable is that the community colleges now teach calculus — and presumably composition — to the same standards as the four-year schools.Report

  2. James Hanley says:

    I benefited greatly from student loan programs. My siblings took a different path and worked their way through college, going part time and paying their way.  I work at a private college which needs the government to be generous with the student loan money.  My daughters may very well get a free education because of tuition exchange programs.

    So my own interests stand on both sides of this question. But ultimately I am in agreement with Mike.  Part of our current problem is that we have emphasized the importance of getting a  college degree. We should be emphasizing the benefit of getting an education.  It bothers me tremendously that I have students who are paying 30k a year only to get the piece of paper, not to actually learn (more importantly, learn how to learn).

    Maybe what we need to do is tie student loan rates to sectoral employment.  If people with English degrees have a high unemployment rate, jack up the student loan rate; the economy is begging for people with engineering degrees, drop the interest rate to rock bottom.  That would probably be really bad for my discipline, but so be it.  It makes no sense to give just as much encouragement to areas where we have a surplus as to areas where he have a deficit.

    For what it’s worth, I’m not criticizing the value of studying literature, political science, etc.  I’m a huge believer in the liberal arts model, so I think engineering students ought to study literature, music, etc.  (and engineers ought to be particularly good at institutional analysis/design in political science!).  But I know damn well that most of my students are going to struggle with a political science degree unless they go to law school, which too many do because they don’t know what else to do with a BA in political science.  So we badger the crap out of our kids to do internships, practice networking, and build their resumes.  I’m bursting with pride right now because this summer one of my students is doing an internship in D.C. with the U.S. Council on Arab-American Relations, and another is interning with the State Department in the Mauritius.  For both of them, that’s going to mean more to their career opportunities than the piece of paper we’ll give them this time next year.


    • Mike Dwyer in reply to James Hanley says:

      Maybe what we need to do is tie student loan rates to sectoral employment.  If people with English degrees have a high unemployment rate, jack up the student loan rate; the economy is begging for people with engineering degrees, drop the interest rate to rock bottom. 

      I love this idea.

      I also agree that you have to let people study what they like in college. I told my daughter she can major in whatever she wants as long as A) She has multiple backup careers planned for if her degree field doesn’t pan out and 2) She has to do some internships to get some practical experience while in college.Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        *boggles* yeah. then engineering would be a really really hard place to get a loan for. Along with hydrology and bunches of other really useful shit. (other countries have no problems poaching our students… now maybe we ought not to pay much for that, but…)

        Also, english degree folks tend to become writers, who are generally self-employed/unemployed (they have a really weird pay system set up).

        And this really fails to take into account the ability of folks to generate new jobs…Report

        • Will H. in reply to Kimmi says:

          In my experience, and to my knowledge, most of the people with English degrees end up being teachers while maintaining unrealistic notions that they might one day write something that somebody will give a damn about while simultaneously nurturing their alcoholism.

          Mechanical engineering did really well for me. Although I initially went to college to study architecture, I ended up building crap that no one really wants to look at– just the exact same as most of the modern architects out there.
          My cousin went to SMU to get a degree in electrical engineering. He seems to be doing alright.

          Of course, I don’t think that everyone should study mechanical engineering. That would make the pickings a bit more slim around these parts.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Will H. says:

            these days it’s a hell of a lot harder to find jobs for engineers, any of them. at least Detroit’s started hiring again, amiright?

            my house was redone by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright’s, so we got a bit of midcentury modern going on.Report

            • Will H. in reply to Kimmi says:

              I’ve been to quite a number of Wright’s buildings.
              I think he should have built boats.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Kimmi says:

              these days it’s a hell of a lot harder to find jobs for engineers, any of them. at least Detroit’s started hiring again, amiright?

              And now for the disagreement. Maybe it’s regional, but nearly every engineering major I know is or has generally been gainfully employed at a reasonably comfortable living wage (I literally cannot think of any exceptions). The same cannot be said for the liberal arts majors (though, to be fair, some of them are quite well employed, too).Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Will H. says:

            That’s a matter of opinion.   I’ve trained and mentored maybe 70 novice coders over the years, which doesn’t count GE’s Bangalore campus.   See, I can take a Liberal Arts person and teach them to code:  it’s not a terribly difficult skill to master and most of it is a process of emulation.   I can’t teach someone to be a good analyst: that requires people skills, lacking in many of the Engineering types I’ve met.   Which isn’t to say every Double E lacks people skills — they just think differently.

            The very worst are Math majors.   They’re impossible.   Terribly deficient in EQ.   Not only can’t they get along with clients, they can’t get along with other team members.   A guy I knew in college, eight years of Math.  He used me as a reference for a consulting gig, bombed out of that, now he repairs computers for a living.  Pitiful case.   Hasn’t written a line of code since.   Beyond redemption.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Kimmi says:

          then engineering would be a really really hard place to get a loan for. Along with hydrology and bunches of other really useful shit.

          I’m guessing you mean that private firms wouldn’t loan because the interest rates wouldn’t be rewarding to them.  But I think Obama’s talking about federal student loans, in which case there’d be no problem for the engineering student.  Or if we did it as private loans, the government could cover a portion of the interest payments.  It can easily be set up to make in-demand education cheaper without making it impossible to get loans for it.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Make her study abroad, too, Mike.  Nothing equals study abroad for building a student’s social and personal confidence, the general ability to move with ease in the world and be adaptable, and just more mature.  It rarely prevents a student from graduating on time (I’ve had a couple who spent a full year abroad and graduated on time; one of them a semester early).  Depending on the program and exchange rates it may or may not cost more than the same semester would domestically, but the marginal extra cost is outweighed by the much larger marginal benefit compared to yet another semester on the same campus.

        It also looks damn good on a resume.  I have a friend who was working in Minnesota and applied for a job his company was opening up in Korea, that he was substantially under-qualified for in terms of work experience, but he’d spent a semester in Taiwan, so they knew he’d be comfortable in Asia. He went from being a data entry clerk to regional shipping manager, making bucketloads more money.Report

        • Lyle in reply to James Hanley says:

          However in engineering in particular its hard to fit time abroad in the 4 years. Given that typically the chance for electives in a 4 year engineering program is close to zero and there are a sequence of courses that typically are laid out to take 4 years.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Perhaps the private sector should take on more of this.

        Don’t lend *ME*, 19-year-old who thinks I might want to and might be capable of being an astrophysicist figure this out to the tune of $50K a year, any money.  Lend my potential employers this money, which they can pay to me in the form of additional salary to cover my education expenses if and when I prove myself capable of the job.  I’m sure there are TONS of problems with this plan, as it is largely a half-baked idea I’ve only come to now but, hey, it’s something!Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

          There  might be something to that, with proper implementation. It may come damn near indentured servitude, though, which if so would make it unconstitutional.  But perhaps not–either work it off or find some other way to pay off the firm that put you through school sounds more than fair to me.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

            Most schools I’ve worked in have offered some form of tuition remission and/or repayment for professional development.  Some have had explicit language that the money is offered with certain conditions or most otherwise be paid back.  At my current school, any PD funds taken in the second half of the year (after January 1) must be repaid if the teacher does not return the following September.  I believe (though don’t know because I haven’t taken it) that TR funds will be offered at 50%, but only $5K/year while employed.  So if I finish my degree in two years, accruing $40K in tuition costs, $20K of which the school will cover, I’ll only get $10K if I leave immediately after finishing.Report

        • Liberty60 in reply to Kazzy says:

          Again- we are trying to find new and novel ways of making college students pay for their own college by mortgaging their future income and options.

          Remarkable how we,  the generations that had our education paid for by our parents/ taxpayers suddenly decide that this is not a good idea.

          This is more of the “every man for himself” stuff, thinly veiled as altruism. Its the opposite of the libertarian charge of Peter taxing Paul for Peter’s benefit.

          Peter the employer wants to reap the benefit of Paul’s engineering education, but wants Paul to pay all the costs for it.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


        I’m not a parent, but in the hypothetical conversations I’ve had with my wife, my plan (which she objects to) has been thus:

        If my child has a plan for what they will do in and after college, I’ll fully support them going.  However, before I give them a dime, I’d insist that they choose a quality state school (in any state), move to that state and work for a year to gain residency, and then pay in-state tuition.

        My justifications include:

        With very few exceptions (both in terms of the schools themselves and the specific areas of study), private colleges fail to justify their outsized tuitions relative to quality public offerings.  The primary benefit of most private schools is name value and signaling.  Sorry, no dice.  Not from my pocket, anyway.  You’re going to college to learn and better yourself.

        Many kids nowadays go to college because that’s what you do after high school.  So, I say take a year (or a few years) and see what else is out there.  Maybe you find something you’ll love that will negate the need for college or will help you better carve out a college path for yourself.  Gaining world and life experience is a good thing.

        NY state schools aren’t as strong as those in many other states, so this plans avoids them being limited to local offerings.

        Most kids (though not all) benefit from expanding their horizons and moving away from home is a great way to do this.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kazzy says:

          If my child has a plan for what they will do in and after college, I’ll fully support them going.  However, before I give them a dime, I’d insist that they choose a quality state school (in any state), move to that state and work for a year to gain residency, and then pay in-state tuition.

          I completely agee. My daughter is attending one of our state schools here in KY.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            Good for her!  As I said in my disclaimer down below, my education was paid for, but I would have gotten more inheritance money afterwards had I spent less on it.  Had my siblings and I gone to public school, we’d each have another $100K or so in our bank accounts (or, we WOULD have… who knows what we would have done with it…).Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

          Let me say a few things about private schools.

          1. One of the most important choices for students to make is between a large school and a small school.  Some students will simply get lost and overwhelmed at a big school.  State Unis tend to be bigger than private colleges (notable exception in each case, of course), so the state school may not be a great place for some kids.

          2. State schools have had massive grade inflation over the past several decades.  At many places, it’s just no longer worth the effort to fail a student or even assign a D or low C, there is massive resistance among students about accepting such a grade and ever fewer administrations are willing to back up their faculty on low grades. The normal grade for just showing up is increasingly becoming a B.  If a student is intelligent and hard-working, this won’t matter.  If the student is not, it allows them to drift through college pretending they’re actually learning something.  This does not happen nearly so much at private schools–we are better able to set a higher standard and hold students accountable to it.

          3. Much of the value of a small private school is the ability to get to know faculty well.  In the absence of knowing their faculty personally and talking to us on an casual and informal basis outside the classroom, it’s highly doubtful that my two students with impressive internships would have applied for, much less gotten, them.  I can also write much better letters of recommendation for my students because I can avoid boilerplate language that looks recycled from one student to the next, and actually tell real stories that demonstrate I know them.  As another example, one of our chemistry students just got into a program a German chemical firm has set up–a two year program in which it will move a set of recent chem grads from factory to factory, several weeks at each, to learn the business from the ground up.  Thousands of applicants, a handful selected, and one of ours was selected over students from top public schools and large elite private schools like Harvard.  She sold herself in the interviews (16 in three days!), but her application got noticed in part because of the letters she had from her profs.

          My undergraduate education was composed of a private religious college, California community colleges, and a California State University.  I benefited from each of them (but my CSU was one of the small ones in the system, and the personal relationships I forged with my profs was really valuable). I’ve taught at both public universities (large and small), a community college (online) and my private college.  I’ve seen them all from both sides, and I would say don’t write any of them off a priori.  They each have real value, but are really targeting different audiences.

          The privates are more expensive, but they often do offer considerably more value at the undergrad level.  But a lot depends on the individual student.  Some would never thrive at a small private school, others would not thrive at a big public school, some will thrive anywhere, and some will thrive nowhere.  But of course that greater expense does have to be taken into consideration, so choosing a private college should not be done lightly.  But take your kid to explore both types of campuses, and find out what’s best for them as an individual.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

            One really, really ought to note that the size of the department matters just as damn much as the size of the school.

            CMU and Pitt graduate around the same number of physics students per year. That means all your courses within your major are gonna be small.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Kimmi says:

              Since I don’t often get the chance to so emphatically agree with Kimmi, I want to say that she is absolutely right here*. I went to a huge university, but a relatively small college within it. Furthermore, I was a member of the Honors College, which gave me access to a separate set of professors (in addition to a more tightly-knit student community within the large machine).

              * – Well, except for the fact that Central Michigan and Pitt are actually relatively similar  in overall size, too, outside the Physics Department. Her point stands, though.Report

          • dhex in reply to James Hanley says:

            State schools have had massive grade inflation over the past several decades.  At many places, it’s just no longer worth the effort to fail a student or even assign a D or low C, there is massive resistance among students about accepting such a grade and ever fewer administrations are willing to back up their faculty on low grades

            this isn’t true only of state schools. maybe it’s more true in ny, but if my wife’s experiences – or my friend’s experiences working at nyu – are any indication, even in private schools you’re going to get no help from the admin and a whole lot of parental resistance to go along with the “my dad pays too much money for me to get a b” thing. (nyu being its own thing, mind you, should probably be considered atypical even within this set)

            it’s worse if it’s an athlete in a sport the school actually makes scrilla from or a big donor’s kid.Report

          • Lyle in reply to James Hanley says:

            My experience at a 40k student school all be it 1968-1972 was that students assumed the faculty were so busy they did not bother to visit them. Faculty would have office hours and no one would come. Back then and likley more so today was to get involved in the student side of academic governance, which involves sitting with faculty. Now admittedly this was in physics which as a major tends to be a small major not like something like psychology. In addition of course one could ask for time to sit and have the faculty member explain the research they are doing.  Often in addition there are discipline specific clubs (physics…) that have talks by faculty on their research interests (faculty love to talk about their research). If one gets involved in these clubs one can get to know faculty. So it can be done all be it takes a bit of work.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


          My point was not so much that private schools and public schools are equal, but moreso that the difference between the two is not large enough to justify the difference in price, which can be easily 4, 5, or 6 times as much and even the difference between a free education and a half-a-million-dollar one (some states, like my home state of NJ, offer free tuition to state schools to high school students achieving certain standards).

          Of course, as always with education, I’ll trot out my “one size fits none” motto.  There are absolutely students who should go to private schools, for whom the difference is real enough to justify the price increase, etc, etc, etc.  But most students would do just as well at either and, with that in mind, are probably wise to save the cash.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:


            Of course it’s a rigged system.  In general we offer better undergrad education, but it’s the less-good system that gets more heavily subsidized. And it’s a bit of a scam on the public as they’re increasingly subsidizing students who actually aren’t learning.  The public should demand higher standards if they’re going to continue to subsidize public undergrad education.

            By the way, from the article I linked:

            Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called “higher order” thinking skills. …

            Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

            Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.”

            Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study’s authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning.


            • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

              “However, the authors note that their findings don’t preclude the possibility that such students “are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.””

              Um, isn’t that sort of a HUGE deal?

              One of my major problems with many attempts at measuring the success of an education program is that the assessments are designed with little to no attention paid to the stated goals of the program.  If a teacher training program makes no claims to developing critical thinking skills, ONLY job relevant skills (of course, I’d argue that critical thinking skills ARE job relevant skills for teachers, but many don’t share that position), then why would we criticize them if the only growth shown by students was in the latter and not the former?

              There is PLENTY of room to discuss what colleges OUGHT to be teaching.  But criticizing them for doing something they might not be setting out to do is a little silly, no?Report

    • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

      “Part of our current problem is that we have emphasized the importance of getting a  college degree. We should be emphasizing the benefit of getting an education.”

      Yes.  Yes yes yes.

      I’ve long held that the shift from viewing education as an end to itself towards viewing education as a means to an end is a major factor in many of the issues in our current education system.  If and when we re-emphasize getting an education, we’ll remember the various routes to becoming educated.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Kazzy says:

        I agree to some extent.
        I was looking at going to a certain college to complete my degree. They had nothing but engineering, years 1- 4. I have a lot of credits from a community college that wouldn’t transfer.
        Although it’s a fairly prestigious school, I would rather go to the one that makes you take the psych & econ & such to get the degree (and not only because I have the credits, it’s because I see the value of it).
        Either that, or the one with the really cool building.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Will H. says:

          Know a guy who still hasn’t finished his physics degree because of

          1) stupid teachers (gotta do it my way…)

          2) philosophy class (too much to say in a one page essay)Report

          • Will H. in reply to Kimmi says:

            I would take a pay cut of around 40% and be limited to entry-level jobs if I counted on a degree doing anything for me.
            Companies these days value experience. It’s the best credential.
            Certifications don’t hurt any. You still have to go test even if you have a degree.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Kimmi says:


            I know those students.  I have those students.  I was that student.

            Those students need to pull their heads out of their asses and stop acting so smug about the smell of their own shit.  They think they know better than the people with experience, even though they don’t have that experience themselves.  They don’t understand the value of disciplining yourself. And they sure as hell don’t understand the consequences of saying “stupid teachers bosses (gotta do it my way).”  Often they’re among the brightest, but they frequently fail out and in fact don’t end up achieving what their talents could allow them to, because they can’t get over themselves.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

              … you’re presupposing that the student has less experience than the teacher, which in this case would be a rather bad assumption.

              The teacher was the one insisting that one had to use force to model the situation (not energy).

              I don’t know, some people do make a career out of “upsetting the applecart.” You need a particular sort of charisma to actually work as a high-level consultant.Report

              • A Teacher in reply to Kimmi says:

                Depending on the lesson the prof has every right to say “Use Force or you fail” because the objective they’re teaching and testing is an understanding of force concepts.

                When I went to college, my university did not accept the Physics C AP Exam because while it did use calculus, it did not cover thermodynamics.  So I had to retake entry physics.  A problem on the first test was to calculate how far up a driveway a piece of ice would slide, given the coefficent of friction, and the angle of the driveway.  The professor insisted I do it using force vectors. This meant calculating the resistance force and acceleration, applying that acceleration until the ice hit the driveway, then recalculating the force given the angle of the drive, then the new acceleration, and then applying that acceleration to find how far it would slide.

                Or it meant taking the initial kinetic energy, and then converting that energy into potential (moving up the incline) and work done against friction.

                The professor refused to grade the second method and as a teacher myself I 100% support that in hindsight.  Why?  Because when you teach it isn’t about the right answer.  Right answers are easy to get.  Heck with the internet 90% of the right answers are at our finger tips.

                Teachers are charged to help students discover the method of finding the right answer so that when novel questions arrive they’re armed with the tools to approach those answers.  And while some situations may make one method seem perferrable (ie using Energy instead of Force Vectors), it’s unfair to demand that a teacher generate a novel problem expressly to pigeon hole a student to practicing the skill set you want them to flex.

                If I want to learn how to drive a golf ball, I may find that it’s easier to just use a 3 iron to get distance off the tee.  But that’s not helping me learn the ~skill~ I need.  In the short term it works:  My drive goes 200 yds and mostly straight.  But I’m robbing myself of ~eventually~ getting that 250-300 yd drive with a solid wood club.

                Or yet another example:  I learned to play the guitar in about 3 months by having a roomie show me chords.  I said “how do you play a D?”and he showed me.  We repeated this until I could get through the DGDA progression of “Teach Your Children” for a church concert.  To this day I can only play about 6 chords effectively, I know exactly two strumming patterns and I can “pick” randomly.

                My wife, on the other hand, was sat down and played scaled for hours on end.  She was then taught to read music and play Etudes.  She does duets with her teacher.  She can play chords on occassion now (she’s not good at them yet), but she’s not far from them.  And when she does start doing them, not only will she do better, but she will be able to actually create picking patterns that work with the music she’s playing rather than my random pulling at strings.  In short, she will know how to play the guitar where I only know how to play some chords.

                The idea that a student knows more than the teacher is often accurate when it comes to facts, when it comes to ‘but the best way to do X is to do Y.”  And that’s great.  Go out and do X by doing Y.  You’re paying a teacher to plan lessons so you can LEARN not just X and Y but to see how R S T and U all work into X so that you’re ready for the truly novel problem Z.  Unless you’re happy with just doing X.  In which case, get the Fish outa my classroom and keep doing X.


              • James Hanley in reply to A Teacher says:

                + infinity to this comment.  Absolutely.  We don’t just teach people facts; we teach them methods, and the more methods you know, the better off you are.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Rote knowledge vs skills vs facts.  You’d be surprised how many people have no clue to the difference between and value of these things.Report

              • Will H. in reply to Kazzy says:

                They all have their place.
                I used to memorize things all the time. For some reason I don’t remember, I quit doing that so much.
                I know how to look things up when I need to, and I have a lot of different code books to choose from. Most of the stuff I already know, and I can go for days without cracking a book; but if I need to verify something, or read a value from a chart, I don’t spend a lot of time digging through there, because I know those books.
                The field is rather process intensive. That’s where experience is valuable. There might be three things to do, each one of which involves eight different steps, which often require coordination with various teams, and would constitute safety issues were they not strictly observed. Usually we have standards that keep people from getting too creative with the process.
                But you can’t be walking around with your nose in a book all day. You have to be able to call on the knowledge when you need it. But no one ever knows everything.
                Just to say, knowing things counts for something.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

                “We don’t just teach people facts”

                Allow me to reiterate the “just” part. If I gave the impression I was disparaging learning facts, that was inadvertent.  I just had a couple of students write on their final exams that the president appoints Senators (according to one) and Representatives (according to the other).  I do wish those young gentlemen had made the effort to learn the relevant facts.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to James Hanley says:

      It’s worth noting that STEM programs have much higher attrition rates than most other fields. We have all the students we need going in to STEM fields—they’re just not making it through. It’s not at all clear to me that there are large numbers of students who actually have the aptitude to get through a STEM program but are instead choosing some other field.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        That said, I also don’t think that we should continue subsidizing student loans. If you can’t make a college education pay for itself, you probably shouldn’t be going.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        I’d say “having all the students we need going…they’re just not making it through,” is a bit of a misnomer.  If there’s going to be an attrition rate (which we would expect in tougher fields), then we need more going in to ensure more coming out the other end.

        I think the aptitude has to do not only with natural talent (although obviously that’s number one), but also about earlier preparation in these fields.  I’m no expert, but I’ve understand that American K-12 STEM education is well below average among developed countries, so a lot of our kids aren’t making it through not because they don’t have the ability but because they aren’t prepared.Report

        • A Teacher in reply to James Hanley says:

          In defense of those K12 programs, we also, unlike other nations, have to make an effort to teach every kid every concept regardless of life path.  Every high school student in Michigan is expected to take and pass algebra two, regardless of career path or post high school planning.

          That changes a LOT of the conversation.


          • James Hanley in reply to A Teacher says:

            I agree. But there are also problems with our method of teaching that turns kids off.  Little kids in many ways are natural scientists–they always want to know “why” and “how does that work.”  We could work with that, but instead we end up boring most of them to tears teaching them facts instead of teaching them methods they can use to explore their answers.

            I’m not blaming the teachers. I doubt most of them particularly enjoy the style of teaching they have to do, but that’s what they were taught and that’s what the state teaches them.

            And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you anything about Michigan’s education bureaucracy!  As someone who has to deal with a teacher ed program (social studies), I could go on at length about how stupidly and persistently fished up they are, but I assume I’d be preaching to the choir.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    NPR was talking the other day about how colleges graduate more journalism students every year than there are jobs in the industry itself.

    Now, of course, my job is only related to my degree insofar as my degree is related to the “everything” part of “Life, The Universe, and Everything” so I don’t know that everybody necessarily needs a job related to their degree but it does feel like there’s a bit of a shell game going on here.Report

  4. Kimmi says:

    Easy debt? I remember a friend who spent his entire food budget from Pell on a computer — was going to eat flour and butter for the semester, because he could not make it through college without a computer.Report

  5. Jason Kuznicki says:

    I’m a mild skeptic on higher education. I tend to think we should find a way to match young people with careers that doesn’t burden them with so much debt.  At any interest rate.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I would much rather see the money we currently dump into subsidized student loans yanked and put into grants.

      $20,000 at 3%?  Hm, that takes care of most of my tuition at Overpriced Health Spa University.  I’ll go there!  They have gigE into the room!  No dorms, four person apartments for freshman!

      $5K outright?  Hm, maybe I ought to go to State U instead, which is a perfectly good school just not quite as many amenities…Report

      • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        You’re aware that on the current trend, 20k is the yearly tuition for in-state residents at a decent chunk of state universities, right? I mean, I realize it is so much more fun to blame the student debt crisis on those silly college students who just want to party for four years than the drop in direct state funding of colleges and universities on a per-student basis over the past twenty years.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jesse Ewiak says:

          $9,000 / year for the state school we are sending my daughter to. Completely do-able with a Pell grant and a decent part -time job.Report

          • Alan Scott in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            I blame a part-time job for knocking a full half-point off my college GPA.  If I’d taken out more loans instead of spending what should have been my homework hours working in a shop for $7 an hour, then there’s a good chance I’d be making several times over what my extra loan payments would be.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        That’s exactly the conversation we had Patrick. Luckily my daughter qualified for the maximum Pell grant and state grants allowed, plus work study. It made State U an attractive option.

        Our rule with tuition was that she is not allowed to borrow for any of her education. Graduating with debt in this economy is an anchor around the neck of those kids.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          And, Mike, personally also I’d encourage your daughter to apply for all the scholarships she can. My daughter’s tuition, books and fees were pretty much completely covered by Pell Grants and various scholarships. There out there, and the paperwork sucks. But it’s worth it.Report

          • Mike Dwyer in reply to Stillwater says:

            Unfortunately she was not the best student in high school. Just like her old man. She has been a B-C student and then scored in the top 10% on the ACT. If she follows my path she’ll love college and finally get the grades she should have been getting all along.Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Dwyer says:


          I will submit, for certain types of students, taking on the debt is worthwhile.  It’s a limited subset of students.

          There’s a type of cat who will study their hind acres off and is smart enough and social enough to also join the eating club at Princeton and make the social networking connections that will enable them to start at $100K a year at graduation.  If Jack or Hannah demonstrated both the ability and the desire to be one of those types of students, and the only way we could afford Princeton was to take on a big loan, that’s justifiable under those circumstances.

          There’s no *hard* rules in this space, but there’s plenty of guidelines…Report

      • Liberty60 in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

        Another side effect of massive student debt is the depressing effect it has on the economy.

        In the past, when students graduated from college debt-free as a result of generous tuition support from the states, they went to work and started buying cars, clothes, and houses. Their wages went into the consumer economy and provided fuel for other jobs.

        Today, they graduate and send a big chunk of their wages to Citibank or Wells Fargo. They don’t buy stuff that the rest of us make.Report

  6. Kolohe says:

    The thing to keep in mind, as has been discussed on this board before I think, that skilled manual labor is very important – and often higly remunerative – but gets much harder to do for any given individual as the decades wear on.  Ideally, by the time you’re forty, you’re getting out of the business of turning the wrench yourself, and into the business of managing and teaching other people to turn the wrench, but that’s a tough thing to ensure actually happens systemically, much less universally.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe says:

      Yep.  Pipefitters have been mentioned multiple times above.  I know several former pipefitters, all of whom left the business after having major back issues, a couple requiring major surgery (or surgeries in one case, as it took multiple attempts to get his problems corrected).  Perhaps more concerning is how software is turning out to have a similar 40-and-done characteristic (eg, this Bloomberg piece among many others).Report

      • Kimmi in reply to Michael Cain says:

        30 and done in silicon valley. but youc an nearly always move out, and find a decent job doing something lame somewhere else.Report

        • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kimmi says:

          That’s funny, because most of the programmers I know are in their mid-to-late thirties and they’re all doin’ just fine.

          Of course, they’re all giant nerds who keep up on new things and are constantly learning.  Gone are the days where you can learn one language and expect to build a career off of it.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

            that’s can’t get hired after 30 (probably can get poached, mind) — not can’t keep on working there.Report

            • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Kimmi says:

              Four of them changed jobs in the last 24 months.

              Software programming has a very big, very squishy middle.  It doesn’t surprise me that most of these guys can’t get hired at 40.

              Most guys in the software programming field shouldn’t have jobs as it is (this applies to most IT positions, really).Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

          Heh.   Silicon Valley is sorta like the military, looks so great from the outside.   These pie-eyed kids get there,  thinking they’ve got these great jobs, gonna get rich, do all this great work — and get a rude shock when they find out the cost of living in Santa Clara Anywheresville.   Stuck writing some vertical market slugbeast for Oracle.

          Tell you why people leave Silicon Valley.   They get a clue.   Want to make real money?   Don’t work for software companies.   Go where coders make real money, consulting.   Do a stint at Accenture or IBM or somewhere you might encounter the real world in operation.   La-la-la, all these style-conscious knuckleheads riding their scooters to work, they’re just too preciously cool to live, tourists in their own lives.Report

          • Simon K in reply to BlaiseP says:

            I would like to see anyone try to ride a scooter to work in Santa Clara.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Simon K says:

              Been anywhere near the Googleplex?  That’s about all you’ll see.Report

              • Simon K in reply to BlaiseP says:

                Google is in Mountain View. And while they may ride scooters around on Campus, they’re certainly not going to be riding them to the office. That would involve a likely-to-be-fatal encounter with the traffic on the 101 exit ramp on Shoreline.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Simon K says:

                To be sure, they don’t putt-putt around on the Bayshore Freeway.   That’s not what’s implied by “riding their scooters to work.”   Yet there is a certain preciousness to everything in Palo Alto, Stanford et. al. all the way to Milipitas.   The Japanese call this effect ukiyo-e, floating world pictures.   Very appealing to some folks, I’m given to understand.   Thirty and done?   I’m sorry, I find that sorta amusing, a bunch of silly kids so terribly impressed with themselves, with not a clue about what constitutes Lameness in the Larger World.

                Well, as I told my own kids, make sure to spend a good deal of your youth in a large city, preferably one where a car becomes impractical.   That’s really the problem with Silicon Valley, it’s terribly crowded and horribly expensive — and you still need a car.Report

              • Simon K in reply to BlaiseP says:

                You can’t get from where Google employees live to Google without either crossing or driving on 101. Look at a map. In common with most people who’ve never spent time there, you’re conflating the pretentious-fly-by-night-web-startup “Silicon Valley” that produces photogenic CEOs for the cover of San Francisco magazine with the corporate-campus Silicon Valley to which Google firmly belongs. Almost no-one in the big-company Silicon Valley is under 35, let alone unemployable at 30. They have job titles ending in “Manager” and starting with “P”. Ironically, the pretentious-web-startup “Silicon Valley” is mainly in San Francisco’ Mission district these days, which should work out well for your kids – they can spend their youth in a large(ish) city, ride scooters to work, and look Lame all at the same time.

                Incidentally, Milpitas conists of office parks,  a very large shopping mall, a railway junction, and some low-end subdivisions.  As far as Palo Alto is concerned, Milpitas is in Mexico. Its perhaps not the best example of preciousness, given as it mainly looks like a scene out of Bladerunner. Although at least you did bother to look at a map. Next time you’re trying to convey your geographical knowledge of the Bay Area, try Los Gatos, that will convince more people.


              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Simon K says:

                As far as Palo Alto is concerned, Milpitas is in Mexico.

                I would have said Nicaragua.  In 1984.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Simon K says:

                C’mon, don’t be that way.   I’ve been on the Bayshore Freeway.   I’ve been in and out of SF and the Bay for a long time.   I’ve been on Google’s campus, back when GE was writing a tunnel into Google Maps for   I was also out at at Tibco’s headquarters when they were doing the trading system which now forms the core of Fidelity and Salomon’s trading platforms, along with tons of other firms.

                I said Milipitas is where the ukiyo-e ends.   As for Mission District, all of SF is a dreamworld.  It’s just a question of what sort of dream you’re pursuing.   Nothing could persuade me to live in that completely overrated dump of a city.   What anyone sees in it is beyond me.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Simon K says:

                For those who know the area, I used to commute by bicycle down Third Street and Bayshore Blvd. down to a job in South San Fran near SFO.  A great ride in the morning after a graveyard shift, but crappy as hell on a weekend night coming off a swing shift.Report

      • Simon K in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Not to be rude or anything, but that article is nonsense on stilts. 45 year olds don’t do entry level coding jobs anywhere, but 45 year olds don’t do entry level jobs inn any industry for obvious reasons. But most jobs in software are not entry level coding jobs, they involve some kind of speciality or experience that justifies higher salaries.Report

      • Will H. in reply to Michael Cain says:

        I know quite a few pipefitters of the union persuasion. The only ones that I know of on disability are two from cancer and one from a car wreck.
        I’ve seen a number of knee replacements, elbow problems, a ruptured spleen, and a neck injury that had a guy laid up for quite a while, but no back injuries.
        One of the big issues facing that industry is that there are more men retiring than going into the field, at a time when demand is going up.Report

  7. Roger says:

    Although not an original idea, I subscribe to the view that any College accepting grants and loans be required to offer free online education to anyone interested. An independent certification process can then be established to validate learning the curriculum. It can of course be applied to the in class level of accomplishment.

    This will break real learning wide open. Online, smart learning systems tailored to individuals will flourish. We will get better education for virtually no marginal cost. Schools will improve, the monopolies of higher education will crumble and the Ivy League snobs will be revealed for the tribalistic status grabbers that they are.

    Education is on the verge of the biggest transformation ever. Smart computer based learning with feedback and validation is just years away. An education superior to Harvard will soon be virtually free and universally available to every human.

    Progress rocks!Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Roger says:

      an education superior to Harvard is currently available, free and online. Dromed, Id, you name it.

      Now, it’s possible that you can’t quantify this, except in the realm of art, where people actually demand *ahah!* portfolios…Report

      • Roger in reply to Kimmi says:

        The key is external education validation. Once we get credible sources documenting educational attainment, the signalling power of the degree disappears.

        Why would I hire someone from a university without proof of learning when I can get someone that is certified,

        The tide is starting to turn and the cost of education is set to plummet.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Roger says:

      NPR just did a piece recently. Princeton and some other universities are getting together to offer over a hundred online courses this fall.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Stanford’s been offering a number of classes for a few years now.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Imagine being able to listen to one of Harold Bloom’s lectures on Poetry or Trevor Nunn (or John Barton’s) lectures on Shakespeare.

        Well… technically, these things have been available at one’s local library for decades. Making them online, however, will allow them to reach every household.

        Sadly, I see them being pretty much exactly as popular tomorrow (for whatever definition of “tomorrow” you’d like to use) as yesterday (again).Report

        • Roger in reply to Jaybird says:

          As above the breakthrough occurs once it is externally validatedReport

          • Jaybird in reply to Roger says:

            Here’s the part that breaks my heart: you shouldn’t watch Trevor Nunn for external validation.

            Watching him argue with Judi Dench or Ben Kingsley or Magneto is its own reward. It makes you a better person and the being better is the validation. There’s nothing external about it at all.Report

  8. Kazzy says:

    A major reason for the increase in college tuition is the availability of student loans.  Isn’t that basic economics?  Put more money into the system and prices go up.  With everyone and their mom armed with access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans, why wouldn’t colleges keep raising prices?Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

      Which means that colleges are no longer competing for $5k/year students but for $10k/15k/20k students.

      We need a fountain! We need an omelet station in the cafeteria! We need kindle fires that we can loan out to students from the library! State U is doing that and we can’t be no slouch!Report

      • Will H. in reply to Jaybird says:

        And the sad fact is that beer & chicks were perfected way before the Byzantine days.
        Throw in a little fingerpainting, and you can get a degree for that.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

        Competing for students?  Seriously?  Many schools turn away 75% of applicants.  All with cash (most of it loaned) to burn. They don’t charge more to justify costs of competing… they charge more because they can.  And they can because we have flooded the system with money.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

          “students” had a very important qualifier before it. Some might say that the comment would be entirely different without it.


          • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

            I misunderstood you.

            Is your point that colleges are trying to bring in rich folks and, as such, must cater to them?

            My point is that almost *everyone* is a “rich folk” nowadays.  I doubt the college cares whether your $40K/year is a loan or paid in straight cash.  They certainly prefer these folks to people who are seeking scholarships.  But my understanding is that most folks aren’t seeking scholarships (or fewer folks are and those who are are seeking less money) because everyone is just taking loans.

            Is my understanding off?Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

              Not rich, per se, just folks with access to funds that people line up to give them.

              Make student debt dischargeable by bankruptcy and see how loans change. Hell, see how *COLLEGES* change.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

                “Not rich, per se, just folks with access to funds that people line up to give them.”

                But doesn’t EVERYONE have access to funds for college due to the ease of student loans?

                “Make student debt dischargeable by bankruptcy and see how loans change. Hell, see how *COLLEGES* change.”

                What impact would that have?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

                Can you imagine a handful of degrees that would not necessarily communicate hireability on the part of any given employer? Like, you’re looking at resumes for an assistant lackey. You want to get this pile of 30 resumes down to 10.

                What degrees do you think you might set aside?

                To what extent do you think your intuitions overlap with the people looking at resumes right now?

                Now, let’s say that you’re a bank. Someone comes up and asks for $40k/year (for four years) to get a degree in (the above).

                You gonna give it?Report

              • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

                “It says here that you have a bachelor of arts degree in Italian Studies. What skills do you think that degree gives you that might help you here at Dell?”Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

                “Not getting this employment would be very displeasing to me.”


              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                Hehe… that actually made me laugh out loud.

                Wait, wait, according to my Italian Studies professor, you’re stereotyping me by stereotyping all Italians as mobsters. Help, help, I’m being repressed!Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Chris says:

                somehow jews never get that stereotype (of being mobsters, despite being heavily active during the early 1900’s)Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

                Gotcha.  Do banks currently ask for that information?  And how long before someone would make doing such illegal?  (Which is not to say I disagree with the plan… just thinking it through to possible conclusions…)Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

                They don’t… but I don’t know that it’d be possible to make “what are you going to do with this money?” an illegal question for lenders to ask.

                What are the precedents for unsecured loans? I know that secured loans don’t care what you do with the money beyond purchasing insurance for the security…Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:


                unsecured loans on your 401k are fun and easy! (you do need to repay, of course)Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


                “What do you want to study?”


                “Boom!  Loan.”

                “What do YOU want to study?”

                “African-American studies.”

                “Oooo… sorry… no can do.”

                You don’t see that situation leading to “There ought to be a law!”

                Again, I don’t agree that it should… but I can see it happening.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:


                yeah… lot more math majors than math jobs… ditto with physicists.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

                Math might not have been the best example.  But people probably will (and probably wrongly) cry discrimination.

                Under the current system, does ANYONE get turned down for student loans?  If not, allowing discretion DOES open up the door for actual discrimination.  Which is certainly not a reason to not take the steps JB advocates… just, again, thinking through what might come of them.Report

              • Liberty60 in reply to Kazzy says:

                Interestingly enough, the Obama Administration is doing very much what you are talking about.

                A lot of the student loans are made to low income students at for-profit colleges like U of Phoenix and Corinthian.

                These are not coddled children studying Elizabethan poetry at taxpayer expense. These are students duped into racking up huge debt to study things like criminology and medical billing, which sounds like a good career move.

                Except the colleges are a joke, and diploma mills that exist mostly to enrich the founders and banks.

                Obama wants to tighten the rules to make the colleges demonstrate they are actually teaching something worthwhile. As the article makes clear, it isn’t the wooly headed liberals who are screaming. It is people like John Boehner, who want to relax rules which allow recruiters to con homeless people and innercity youths into signing up, knowing the taxpaeyr will ultimately hold the bag for student loan defaults.


      • James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:

        State U is doing that and we can’t be no slouch!

        ‘Cause if we’re a slouch, we won’t get enough students to cover the bills.  Believe me, my college was doing minimal investment in facilities, had about a 10 year backlog in deferred maintenance, with everything looking drab and dreary (we’ll let the lawn die every summer, so we don’t have to pay for watering it)…hell, my office had 50 year old curtains with half the hooks to hang them broken off.  And each year our enrollment went down, which meant we had less to spend on upkeep, which meant we had a harder time persuading students to come, and so on and so on.  When I arrived students asked me if I was disappointed to be here, because it was–in their words–“a lousy school.”

        7 years on from our low point, and we’re now we’re close to double the enrollment.  All it took was getting lots of donations and loans (we’re leveraged out the hoo-ha) to create much more attractive facilities and amenities.  But in the long run, somebody has to pay off those loans, and of course it’s going to be the students.

        What’s a college to do?  We exist in a competitive market whether we like it or not.  When our new president started talking about creating a brand identity, most of the faculty had a fainting spell.  “Oh, no, we’re about educating the poor darlings, we’re not a business.”  The only people in the room who were nodding were the economists, business profs, and me.  There’s absolutely no choice.  The only schools that can afford not to do it are the very narrow niche market religious colleges that can rely on a steady stream of kids from the home churches.  Everyone else has to play the game.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

          Did the Creative Writing department change appreciably in that time? The Biochem department?

          It seems absurd to me that the school would be judged more by the lawn than by the employment-after-graduation numbers.Report

          • James Hanley in reply to Jaybird says:


            We’re talking about selling 18 year olds on coming here.  They want to be wowed, and they want to be entertained, and they don’t want to live in Sparta.

            You know why University of Oregon has those whacky football uniforms that all the old folks hate?  Because high school seniors dig them–the football program is very blunt about that; the uniforms have brought more top recruits their way.

            We don’t have wacky uniforms, but we did spend a million and a half bucks on an outdoor terrace with a fireplace and waterproof televisions.  It drives me crazy, but the fact is that the students love it, and when high school seniors and their families come through you can see they’re impressed.  Yeah, they all ought to be thinking, “what’s my share of that going to be in tuition dollars.”  But it’s too abstract and disconnected.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

              The world is going to hell in a handbasket.Report

              • James K in reply to Jaybird says:

                Nah, people have never been any good at doing that calculation.  If anything people are better at abstract reasoning than they used to be.Report

              • A Teacher in reply to James K says:

                When I went to college I had two choices on the table for me:

                University of Michigan – Big, well known, state school.  Alma Mater of both parents.  Nationally known, though not as well know for it’s education department.

                Central Michigan University – Smaller, well known in state for it’s ed program.  Unknown out of state.  Substationally cheaper.  Also, they offered me a tuition scholarship.

                Now I was leaning, I think rightly so, towards UM.  There was the tradition, the fact that I had friends going there, that it’d be nationally recognized so I wouldn’t be explaining if I moved out of state that yes, CMU is very well known in state for teachers, and I generally liked where I was going to live for four years.

                I picked CMU mostly because it was a lot cheaper.

                That said, I don’t think it’s fair to besmirch picking a college for non-accademic reasons.  I mean we’re talking about a 4 year living commitment.  For someone who’s not yet 20 years old you’re talking about roughly 20% of their life to date (playing loose with the numbers).  Is it so unfair to let them pick, in part, based on where they think they’ll not be miserable for those 4 years?Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to A Teacher says:

                I agree with a lot of this. I wouldnt have 10 years ago. I thought picking a school for the living arrangements and culture was missing the point. Then i met my wife and her college friends and saw their campus (Furman University) and I got it. Now that is a big part of what we want for our daughter. The WHOLE college experience.Report

            • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

              How many 18-year-olds even look at the financing numbers?

              This is a serious question.  I didn’t.  Someone else did all the paperwork (and, again, I took no loans).Report

            • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

              Also, I thought Oregon’s uniforms had more to do with Nike than recruiting.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:


                Oregon’s relationship with Nike has been great for their athletic programs overall, and Nike enjoys the marketing kick, no doubt.  But the express purpose of the ever-changing and sometimes garish uniforms is recruiting.

                I always like to point out, though, that Nike owner Phil Knight, a former track athlete at Oregon, gives big money to academics, too.  The library had a major renovation in the early ’90s thanks to him, the law school got great new digs in the late ’90s thanks to him, and he offered matching funds for endowed chairs.  I remember a fellow grad student once complaining that Knight didn’t give money for academics, and he was totally non-plussed when I pointed out the Knight Library and Knight Law School.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to James Hanley says:

                Good to hear that there is such a great relationship between the school and a local business. Your point about marketing makes sense, especially when Virginia Tech (which has no relationship with a major athletic brand that I know of) is taken into effect.  They also go really outside the box with uniforms and will trot out 4 or more designs a year.  The relationship doesn’t hurt, either, though.  Maryland recently partnered with Under Armour (I believe the head of that is either an alum or an MD native), leading to a new uni design last year, with the Maryland flag along the shoulders (which I personally thought looked AWESOME, but I was always a sucker for the Maryland state flag when I lived there… others felt very differently).  The helmet… not so much…



              • James Hanley in reply to Kazzy says:

                Worst. Helmet. Ever.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Jaybird says:

            “but I wanna go to a pretty school…”
            (seriously, this was how a friend of mine picked which womens college to go to)Report

  9. Kazzy says:

    I should have done this earlier, but think it is worth putting out this disclaimer:

    I am a product of private higher education (primarily public education before that, save for a few years of Catholic elementary school).  My college was entirely paid for via money left by my grandmother.  Her estate was left with explicit instructions to pay for our undergrad.  Any monies left over were split between my siblings and I.  I spent mine on grad school, making up the difference with personal savings and scholarships.  I have a bachelors and Masters and not a cent of debt.Report

  10. BlaiseP says:

    Going to college isn’t about getting a good job.  The sooner that myth is put away the better.  College is about becoming somebody, making excellent friends, enjoying your life while you’re still young and pliable enough.  If you have any sense, you go on with your education, all your life.   Evolution produced this big swollen forehead on you with your forebrain behind it.   College is where you get to fill it up with wonderful, often seemingly useless stuff.

    Google was started by two friends and a really powerful set of servers at Stanford.  Baidu, the Chinese search engine, starts on the same project.   Facebook, a couple of dudes at college, writing software which builds the connections I’m talking about   Apple starts when Steve Jobs audits a calligraphy class after six months at Reed College.   The whole of Research Triangle in Raleigh/Durham feeds on the campuses of Duke and UNC.

    I’d done two years in college, in the States, saw myself turning into a carbon copy of my father and joined the military.   When I got out after my second enlistment, I paid for school with savings, the GI Bill and an obscure grant left over from the WW2 era which gave American GIs a chance to go to Oxford or Cambridge Universities in the UK.   I did a fair bit of language tutoring and paper writing along the way which earned me some living money.   I came back to the States, took more technical courses and paid for them by driving a cab until my mentor came into my life.   I started writing software for five bucks a day and room and board, finished up school that way.

    Student loans are a rip-off, taking advantage of people when they’re most-vulnerable.   They burden young people with repaying debt when they’re least able to do so.   If I were to reform the college loan system, I’d reorder the loan repayment schedule to amortise the principal faster over time.   Currently, the principal owed decreases so slowly it’s damaging young people.    I’d also organise pools of capital for just such loans:  as we endow schools, we should be setting up capitalised entities, where as each loan is repaid, the funds re-enter the loan pool.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to BlaiseP says:


    • A Teacher in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I agree that college isn’t about getting a job.

      I disagree that it’s about having fun with friends.  You can have fun with friends for a lot less than the cost of going to a college.

      I would assert that college is an advanced form of “prove you can do it”.  Prove that you can balance mostly independent living with going to class and learning equal parts of useful and useless stuff.  Prove that you’re able to do more than High School demanded because these days high school isn’t demanding much….


  11. b-psycho says:

    It’s interesting how the cost for students to attend has gone up but there’s basically no visible reason to believe the costs of operating the schools has gone up.Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to b-psycho says:

      The standard account holds that higher education is a victim of Baumol’s Cost Disease. Seems at least plausible to me.  What do you think?Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        Better professors get better wages.   Quite a few people in my industry have gone into academia because it lets them do research they wouldn’t get to do on the outside.   IBM Armonk is a revolving door between pure research and academia.   Duke is another.Report

      • wardsmith in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

        When my son was an accounting major at Big State U, he did an analysis of their finances for a class. What he showed was that the money spent on facilities and administration positions had gone up dramatically over the past 30 years (then) while the teacher to student ratio had actually declined. In other words, he showed the students were being short changed. His professor was less than happy with (the conclusions of) his paper and gave him a “D” on it. I couldn’t have been more proud. Now my son is the youngest employee of a fairly major investment trust company who recruited him away from a Fortune 100 manufacturer. He personally manages a portfolio over $5B. His “critical thinking” was not impaired by the business school he attended, but I can easily see how his classmates (who got better grades and suffer at Big 4 accounting firms today) had theirs weakened. The fault isn’t even the curriculum so much as the professors enjoying their little fiefdoms. Of course even to pass a CPA exam today requires a high degree of “yes man” mentality and lack of critical thinking.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

          is he managing dumb money?Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Kimmi says:

            If this investment trust picked Ward’s kid out of some manufacturing outfit, you can bet your life he’s a whole lot Smarter than the Average Bear.   Something tells me, knowing a little bit about how such things go down, a copy of that paper toddled beyond the confines of Big State U and very likely attracted the attention of wiser minds than the jackass who gave him a D for writing such things.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to wardsmith says:


          Did the prof really not like your kid’s conclusions.  Most every prof I’ve ever known would smile and say, “yep, that’s what I thought.”Report

    • Morat20 in reply to b-psycho says:

      Well, offhand — I know that the inflation adjusted % of college costs born by state and federal governments has dropped drastically. (California is an extreme example of this).

      This is even at flagship state schools — when states were paying a significant chunk directly, they had a lot more sway about costs than when they’re doing it through loans to students.

      I’d also point the finger at college atheletics. That stuff ain’t cheap. And that’s a problem even at community colleges — one near my home was a top-level community college, and has NO sports anymore. (PE type classes, yes, but no school teams).

      Why? They kept skimming money off tuition to subsidize atheletics, in violation of their charter. To the tune of millions. When they got caught, they tried to funnel the money through their landscaping program. Finally after getting pretty much the entire top tier of the admins and board fired, they just ended the atheletics program beyond classes.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Morat20 says:

        I’d also point the finger at college athletics. That stuff ain’t cheap.

        My understanding is that, while expensive to run, some athletic programs on net make money for the school.  I know Ohio State does.  It would be interesting to see a breakdown of schools with positive and negative cash flows from their athletic programs.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          I think most do not.  Especially when you factor in the non-revenue sports.

          I suppose some of that depends on how they account for scholarships.  Giving a player a full-ride doesn’t REALLY cost the school the full price of tuition, since a certain profit margin was built into that.  If a player gets a scholarship that would have cost a non-scholarship student $40K a year, there might only be an outlay of $30K.  I have no idea how this stuff is calculated.  But the conventional wisdom is that most athletic programs operate in the red.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          My alma mater has the highest grossing income of any college basketball program in the country. My understanding is that most of the funds get channeled into other athletic programs that don’t generate as much revenue like soccer or softball. Not much, if any, makes it into academics.Report

        • Fnord in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Big 10 football is probably not the normal situation for college athletics.Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          NCAA College athletics is a huge scam.  Those programs are separately incorporated, they’re not part of the school.   It’s a skeevy racket:  those kids play for nothing, get injured, oh they get scholarships (twirls index finger…) for degrees in Sports Broadcasting or some equally-ridiculous major.

          The other day on Forbes, there was some hoo-hah from Steven Salzberg about the University of Florida eliminating its CompSci program while the athletic budget went up by $2 mil USD.  All those Gator boosters turned up to point out the athletic program put $6 mil USD back into the UF coffers.   Well, now that the stench of this financial fart has reached the Intertubes, UF thinks it might revisit this decision.

          It’s all so much disingenuous crap.   NCAA ought to be taken to court and beaten with the Ugly Stick.   The situation has gotten so bad nothing short of legal action will fix this mess.Report

          • Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Living in a town where only 25% of the population actually went to college but 80% of them root for the local university – it gets pretty onboxious to hear them talk about athletics as if it’s the only reason the school exists.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to b-psycho says:

      there’s basically no visible reason to believe the costs of operating the schools has gone up.

      Yes, there are.  For one, having to build and maintain ever nicer facilities means on-going cost increases.  For another, 30 years ago schools didn’t have to invest in perpetual technology upgrades.  If the tech industry would just stall on innovation for a decade or so, it would be a big relief for colleges. 😉

      Also, the cost of insuring employees keeps going up.  The increase in my paychecks over the past decade don’t reveal the actual increase in the cost of employing me.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to James Hanley says:

        There’s also the fact that when people donate money to a school, they typically want an instructional or research facility with their name on it…. or at least a gym.

        They don’t want to have a plaque with their name on it on the cogen plant or the upgraded chilled water plant.  Or the IT closets.

        So the power load requirements, and the operational costs of maintenance go up, and that comes out of the GB.Report

        • James Hanley in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          And they don’t want to generate to that GB because they can’t go look at their plaque.  Every college would love to have a huge non-dedicated endowment, but that doesn’t often happen.Report

  12. DensityDuck says:

    I always give the fish-eye to stories about how “manufacturing is desperate for skilled workers”.  Because you read the article and what you learn is that it’s actually “manufacturing in some out-of-the-way run-down totally unattractive place like a Detroit suburb surrounded by burnt-out industrial parks is desperate for skilled workers who’ve got twelve years of experience and are willing to take a thirty-percent pay cut and relocate at their own expense“.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

      You mean like Pittsburgh?

      america’s most liveable city in 2008.

      Yeah, “totally unattractive, rundown places” like Pittsburgh.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Kimmi says:

        Note where the linked story was not about.Report

        • The media likes to focus on Detroit because that was where manufacturing went to die. My old employer had significant difficulty getting skilled labor. But I consider “OMG Detroit!” to be a rather lame reason. It’s not unlike “Who cares about the jobs in North Dakota.” It makes me less sympathetic to claims that there aren’t decent career paths for the not-college-bound.

          Of course, a glut of workers in ND or Michigan aren’t going to solve the problem, but having jobs that can’t be filled for lack of trained personnel is a problem in itself. One that we should try to gear ourselves towards finding people to fill.Report

          • Kimmi in reply to Will Truman says:


            One does wonder at the type of person willing to make $90K per year and live out of the back of a pickup truck in North Dakota,Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Kimmi says:

              It’s the type of person willing to put up with inconvenience to make $90k a year. If not for my wife’s job, it’s something I would consider if I was struggling to find work.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to Kimmi says:

              I’m more inclined to wonder what kind of person would sit around Michigan moaning about not having a job, rather than go to North Dakota and live out of the back of a pickup truck in order to make $90k a year.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to James Hanley says:

                a person without a gun.Report

              • I would agree, but there are spousal jobs to consider. That’s been one of the issues out here. You can recruit one, but two-income people (or cases where the spouse is a student or whatever) can’t do it so easily. And men want to live out here and women don’t. I would suspect that the job opportunities in ND are skewed in one gender direction.

                But if you just got out of high school or college? I have a lot less sympathy. When I was young and single, I applied for jobs in Harlingen, Texas, and in some of the southern wastelands (for lack of a better term – not implying that the southern US is wasteland as a whole…).Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Will Truman says:

                Will, I have a former student who’s been struggling to find a job in Michigan. I specifically pointed out to him that his parents were healthy, he had no significant other, had no mortgage, and that Fargo had an unemployment rate of 3.7%.  Last I knew, he’s still in Michigan.

                That’s the kind of person I’m talking about.  And this is a kid who signed up for Peace Corps, so he’s willing to go spend a year in some third world hell hole, but he can’t leave Shitsburg, Michigan for the bright lights of Fargo.

                Yeah, if you’ve got a spouse with a decent job, you’re a different person in a different situation.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

          Obama’s been here rather frequently talking about manufacturing jobs.Report

      • Jeff Wong in reply to Kimmi says:

        Someone is wearing their Yinzer pride on their breast. Pittsburgh did decline from it’s greatness as a manufacturing center, but at least we aren’t like Cleveland or Detroit. Pittsburgh collects a lot of foreign currency from all over the world, children of elite communists, industrialists, and organized crime. Not to mention children of the growing middle classes of the world eager for their kids to get smart and successful. Also, cheap skilled immigrants willing to work for grad school stipends.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Jeff Wong says:

          to the tune of 50% fewer people than peak population. 20% vacancy rate. And you wonder, in 2008, it gets most livable city? It was the only affordable city!Report

    • b-psycho in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Manufacturing would have more skilled domestic workers if not for the period where domestic manufacturing basically threatened to join the dinosaurs.  When people see factories close all over, what else are they supposed to conclude but “manufacturing isn’t a good field to expect a future job in”?Report

      • Will Truman in reply to b-psycho says:

        Not only was manufacturing considered extinction-bound, but it was really just sort of shrugged off. There was the assumption that we would just be able to stick everyone in white collar jobs. The result was a stench so bad that it not only had self-fulfilling aspects, but also pushed out white collar people we also need in the field. When I was in college, the industrial majors (production engineering, inventory and distribution management) were going nuts trying to get people to go into their majors because they couldn’t feed the local employers fast enough. This was before the current recession, but during the last one.


  13. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    I joined the Navy to pay for college.  The GI Bill isn’t huge, but 2-4 years of service isn’t a high price to pay for it.  Plus the military would help pay for any college or tech school classes I wanted to take while I was in.

    And being a Veteran (Gas Turbine Tech-Mechanical 3rd Class) has never hurt my resume (“What did you do in the Navy?”, “Oh, I flew around on a hovercraft and maintained & repaired all the mechanical systems onboard while shuttling Marines around to assault beaches”)

    It’s not for everyone, but for those who can do it, the benefits are reaped for decades.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

      The father-in-law went to the Air Force Academy, and then spent 20 in the Air Force as a research physicist followed by 20 at Northrop Grumman doing pretty much the same thing.

      If you want to be a nerd who works with expensive toys, the Air Force academy is an attractive option, that’s for certain.Report

    • Texas has a law, which I assume has analogs in other states, that basically says that state agencies must, all things being equal, hire the veteran.Report

  14. wardsmith says:

    Haven’t read all the comments yet, but was wondering if Mike had purposely posted this to coincide with Trillion dollar debt day? The operative term here is that college debt now exceeds all credit card debt in this country and if I recall correctly, a goodly percentage of mortgage debt.

    From an economics standpoint this problem is easy. Too much money chasing too few slots. The fact is that perhaps 50% (coincidentally the number of unemployed graduates) of our college students have no business in college. They are filling seats, bloating budgets and otherwise having a good time, but as Dr. Hanley says above, they are not LEARNING. Colleges don’t /compete/ for students per se, and they certainly don’t compete for tuition in a free market sense. They simply ratchet up the costs every year and the “market” doesn’t react because there is no “market”.In that respect, and for similar reasons, college tuitions coincide with ever escalating health care costs, because so few “buyers” are paying with their own money.

    Back when I worked my way through college the numbers were so much smaller than they are today it isn’t even comparable. I could go for an entire semester for less than my son paid for just his books in one quarter 10 years ago. I could also take 29 credits per semester (and did) to get my money’s worth (I never borrowed one thin dime). Even with that, I had friends who managed to accumulate substantial debt (perhaps the double digit interest rates had something to do with it).

    The system is clearly broken, we don’t need so many people with college degrees, we could simply get by with a legitimate intelligence testing system (yet to be developed I agree) and figure out a scheme for companies to do the training (they have do do that anyway). Oh, and we need dilithium crystals to solve the energy crisis, cornucopia machines to solve the economic crisis and immortality drugs to solve the health crisis. 🙂Report

    • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

      I was a tutor at a community college.

      Nearly every damn person I tutored there was paying for it with their own money (I worked nights).

      THESE were the people who got some damn employment, and now want PROSPECTS.

      I don’t think that 50% of kids out of college ain’t learned jack. THAT doesnt’ square with the numbers in 2006, which would show a lot less unemployment if I bothered to look, which i ain’t gonna do because it’s Obvious.

      When most people are out of work, you hire a better class of person — more experienced and reliable.Report

      • Jeff Wong in reply to Kimmi says:

        Capitalism is not growing fast enough to recycle the fruits of its own prior cycles. Wealth growth enabled a rising middle class who could afford to dump money into the educational industrial complex to buy a pass back into middle class success.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to wardsmith says:

      Haven’t read all the comments yet, but was wondering if Mike had purposely posted this to coincide with Trillion dollar debt day?

      I think the president timed his speech with that and I pivoted off of him.Report

    • Liberty60 in reply to wardsmith says:

      The fact is that perhaps 50% (coincidentally the number of unemployed graduates) of our college students have no business in college.

      You know this how?Report

      • wardsmith in reply to Liberty60 says:

        Liberty, I don’t know that I can put my finger on a study that says this quite so bluntly. In general admissions standards have been falling for decades. Furthermore, the workload has diminished, the number of hours students spend studying is 1/4th what it was and essentially the quality of the output is worse. I could also point to declining SAT scores (and they’ve been gaming the SAT for decades to try and hide this fact) and on and on. I’m guessing you didn’t read Hanley’s linked article (which I re-linked above)? From the book (here’s another link for you, dumbed downs as it were) and a salient quote:

        Half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester…

        The reason colleges have dumbed down their classes, reduced the amount of required work and generally abandoned academic rigor is because they have shifted their prime missions from education to retention. Since high schools are doing a poor job of preparing students for higher education, colleges have to choose between maintaining high standards and letting kids fail, or dumbing down the curriculum to meet the academic abilities of their incoming students. The vast majority of four-year colleges have chosen the latter course.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:


          Very few physics majors would have a 20 page course in the past semester.

          Even at UPITT, which has INSANE amounts of libbie requirements — you need two courses of 20 pages. TWO, over the course of your entire curriculum.Report

          • wardsmith in reply to Kimmi says:

            Kimmi, when I did physics, very routinely I’d do 20 page PROOFS, I think those count. The rest of the article (and book and my links above) talk about how different things are today than when, for instance I went to school. I can only agree. Back then, the “not so smart” kids joined the unions and worked at the (today non existent) manufacturing jobs in town. Today the “not so smart” kids go to college and learn exactly what “not so smart” people are capable of learning in an academic environment.

            Bottom line, colleges have dumbed down their curriculums to accommodate the dumbed down product of our dumbed down education system. In the old days, only the creme de la creme would have gone on to university. Now they’ll take anyone with a pulse. The discriminant value of a piece of sheepskin has diminished to the point where now we require advanced degrees and outside accreditation to validate the candidate’s intellectual prowess.

            My other son worked at Microsoft (now he’s at Google), they used to ask really great interview questions, unfortunately the discriminant value of those questions diminished as the questions (and group-answers) became prevalent via sites like these.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

              20 page proofs? Of what, if I can ask?

              Physics is a numerical field these days — all the analytical tools you learned back then ought to be rusting in a drawer somewhere along with your sliderule.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Kimmi says:

                Any competent analyst would laugh their ass off at that comment.  We’re a hell of a long way off from using trapezoidal integration to solve everything.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

                *blink* I believe you’re proving a whole lot about how rusty your physics is… E&M, fluid dynamics — whole hell of a lot of solution spaces that you can’t solve anything but the most simple of problems… and simple problems? already been solved.

                Heard a whole sermon from a guy from Seagate on how he spent his entire career doing a first order approximation to a square root…

                Oh, and what exactly was that 20 page proof on? Maybe a ten page proof? Actually curious… about the only thing I can think that would take that long has gobs of matrix arithmetic…Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Kimmi says:

                Kimmi, I don’t know what passes for Physics where you come from, and am afraid to find out. Merely “solving” problems by plugging numbers into an equation (that someone else set up) does NOT constitute physics, at least where I come from. Any moron can plug numbers into a formula, but without a thorough understanding of the underlying concepts and yes, PROOF that the math equations are logically consistent, and can be traced back to first principles (themselves previously proven) it is a fool’s errand. Of course this kind of thinking is what got us to the “science” of “climate science” and all the horseshit that produced. It is also PRECISELY what gave us the financial derivatives mess that led to the great recession of 2008. You probably don’t understand the first thing about the derivation of Navier Stokes equations, you just plug the numbers in and smile when the computer spits out an answer “accurate” to 12 places past the decimal point. I pity the next generation.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

              I question just how dumbed down universities have gotten.   Old farts have been complaining forever about how dumb the next generation has gotten, how much tougher things are now, how anyone with a working autonomic response system gets admitted.

              I don’t buy it.   From what I’ve seen, kids emerging from school these days have it a lot tougher than I ever did.   I’m not sure what happened along the way, they’re more serious, they’re more committed.   They’re nowhere near as arrogant and demanding as kids in the 80s were, that much is for sure.   Somehow, they seem sadder.  Hard to put a finger on what I sense in these kids.  Their world isn’t going to be as full of opportunities as ours was.


              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

                I think this is institution-dependent.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

                What are you seeing these days?   From what I’ve seen,  given my two arc-seconds of view from the bottom of my well, there’s something about these kids which puts me in mind of the children of the Great Depression.   They’re serious people.   They’re kinder, wiser somehow, a wisdom born of some inner sadness.   A good many of their parents are now divorced.  They don’t seem to resent older people, though, that used to be a big problem not so long ago.   This is most clearly seen in their music.    There’s a good deal of idealism afoot these days, albeit muted, a strong sense of affection for simpler things.   These are the kids who grew up with AIDS and 9/11.   A truly admirable generation.Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

                There’s a number of oddities.

                Caltech is always a unique environment, and the undergraduate students here don’t map onto the general public well.  The grad students are more like grad students everywhere.  CGU’s grad student population is varied, but you can tell the difference between the students who came straight from and undergrad and students who have been out in the world for a while, still.

                My nephew is going to start San Jose State University next year, I’ll grill him about his classmates when he gets there.  I’m still trying to figure out the kids these days.Report

              • MikeSchilling in reply to BlaiseP says:

                The world continues to deteriorate.

                Bill James once quoted an old ballplayer who insisted that in his day people played the game the right way because they loved it, but nowadays no one knows the fundamentals and all they care about is money.  The quote is from 1916.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to MikeSchilling says:

                Heck, Socrates (supposedly), more than once, went off about the dang kids these days in 400 B.C.Report

            • James Hanley in reply to wardsmith says:

              I’m better friends with the scientists at our college than with my fellow social scientists.  I can tell you flat out that most of their students write 20 pages or more of lab writeups every term, whether we’re talking about physics, chemistry, biology or geology.  They may not be doing a 20 page page, but they’re doing 20 pages of writing, easy.Report

        • Alan Scott in reply to wardsmith says:

          Isn’t “Gaming the SAT scores” an inherently meaningless concept?  The scores are, and have always been, weighted such that 500 is the mean and 100 is the standard deviation on each section.Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Alan Scott says:

            Not quite. I think they try for it, but they don’t actually force the scores to fit that curve. By 1995 the mean composite score had drifted down to 900, and they did a renorming to push it back up to 1000. They also greatly lowered the ceiling, changing the number of students scoring 1600 from one in 150,000 to one in 1,500. I kind of benefitted from that, since I got a 1600 two years later, before people realized that it wasn’t all that great anymore.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Liberty60 says:

        FWIW, I agree with Ward, with some provisos and caveats.

        If “C” is average, and “everybody goes go college”… well, you do the math.  Half the people in college can’t hack a “C”.

        • Kimmi in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          20% get A’s, 20% get B’s, 20% get C’s, 20% get D’s, 20% get Fs.

          60% of college students hack a C, assuming a flat distribution. Make it more gaussian, and MORE people can hack a C, I think.Report

          • wardsmith in reply to Kimmi says:

            Kimmi, please tell me you didn’t tutor statistics.Report

            • Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

              Course I did. Now do I need to haul out Pascal’s Triangle? *sticks tongue out at you* pfft!Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Kimmi says:

                Intelligence is not distributed on a flat distribution scale (as you would know if you were actually, you know, intelligent). Do I need to feed you some poisson?Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to wardsmith says:

                It’s all very silly.  Intelligence can’t be quantified.   Even in my corner of the Forty Acre Wood, machine intelligence, there’s no working definition for intelligence.

                But +2 for the poisson.

              • Jaybird in reply to BlaiseP says:

                While it’s true that intelligence can’t be quantified, I’ve spoken with people who are average and people who are not average and I am pretty good at telling the difference.

                (For the record: the fact that we’re here, of all places, is a good indicator that we’re not average in the good direction.)Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                I have this theory about intelligence.   My old mentor used to say little babies all look like Winston Churchill.   But look at how different kids are, even from the same family, by the time they’re three or four.

                We are the sum of all that’s happened to us.   Average — nobody’s average.  This isn’t to be some touchy-feely “everyone’s special” diatribe, but over time, despite all our efforts to fit in, we just get weirder and more individual over time.   And it never stops.  Along with that weirdness comes a unique coping strategy.  A unique sort of intelligence.Report

        • Will H. in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          The part I can’t get over is this:
          If you need a 72% in your major to “pass,” we’re screwed.
          Say, I fall out at the train station from a heart attack.
          Some guy that can perform CPR correctly 72% of the time shows up?
          I’m screwed.Report

          • A Teacher in reply to Will H. says:

            That’s assuming that every skill that’s taught in a given major is essential to the successful operation of that skill in the field.

            I want to hire a pilot.  Joe Pilot took a class where he was trained to fly EVERY AIR CRAFT EVA!.  He got a 72% in the class.

            Before I reject him I’m going to take the model of plane he’s going to fly and compare it to his score on flying that plane.

            Because at the end of the day I don’t give a flying fish how well he flies derrigibles….


            • BlaiseP in reply to A Teacher says:

              Competency doesn’t equate to a test score, that’s true.   Problem is, the FAA’s magic number is 70.   You can take your test over again, try and get a better score.   But you don’t have to.   It’s not about your CAX score.  It’s how many hours you have logged.Report

          • BlaiseP in reply to Will H. says:

            You’re only screwed if he doesn’t perform a single proper chest compression and prevents someone who does know how to do CPR from intervening.   Your odds of surviving in the train station are rather good:  lots of people will see you collapse and at least one of them will act, more than likely several.


          • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Will H. says:

            Ya’ know what you call the guy who placed last in medical school?



            • According to my wife, they make it *very* difficult to fail out of med school*. At least one person washed out of her residency, though. Which is unfortunate in a number of respects, to have spent so much on an education only to be kicked out of the path of one of the main things you can *do* with that education.

              * – Not that she tried! She graduated out of the top third of her class.Report

            • And ya’ know what you call the guy who placed last in law school.  Your Honor.Report

  15. Kris says:

    I have all the same beliefs expressed here but about high school.

    Most of what you learn in high school is unnecessary for your career and life. (You learned to read and you learned all the arithmetic you’ll need, e.g. to create your budget, calculate mortgage payments, etc. by grade 8. By grade 8 you have enough of a sense of basic civics to function as a voter, too.) High school teaches Shakespeare, literature, history that’s useless. If people want they can learn all of this at the library for free. Moreover the physics, biology and abstract math you learn in high school is largely useless for most careers. Some jobs could provide you any training you need in, say, chemistry (e.g. if you have a mid-level job where hazardous chemicals are present) much more quickly and cheaply than at school.

    Teenagers that want to be nurses, doctors, engineers, and scientists can go on to study at high school and college, but there’s no need for so many people to go given that there are so few jobs that require the abstruse knowledge imparted in high school. It’s a waste to spend so much money and time on “so few career slots.”

    Yet state governments are going into debt to pay for high school. (Think of the debt we’ll avoid by cutting high school for all but the few elites who need it.) Some people go into debt sending tehir kids to private school. Kids should save up and go to high school later -in their 20’s, maybe- if they choose to enter a career that requires scientific knowledge or something else abstract.

    These high schoolers would be more productive workers if they worked full time instead of going to school. And society would benefit.

    Oh wait, no. That’s dumb. All Students should go to high school, because a.) education is one of the best intrinsic goods in life b.) flooding the labor market with billions of hours of unskilled cheap labor would be a disaster, and c.) there is a value in giving young people a broad based education that will allow them to choose different careers as they age. Really, it’s worth it to spend money and even go in to debt to get a high school education.

    Deciding whether to go into debt or work before going to school to go to college is a complex decision that should vary from individual to individual. Sometimes it’s worth it to take on the debt. I racked up 30,000 and don’t have a super high-paying job, but it is a job that I probably wouldn’t have if it weren’t for the degree. I certainly am much happier paying off the loan than I would be going back in time and spending years working at shitty jobs to save enough money to pay my way through school. Student loan interest is deductible, the payments aren’t that high.

    BTW, all college education could be cheap if colleges didn’t waste money on overly expensive services, unecessary improvements to campus grounds, and ridiculously bloated administrations. College should be -just like health care- much, much cheaper. In lots of places it is substantially cheaper than the U.S?Report

    • A Teacher in reply to Kris says:

      To quote Mary Schmich:

      “Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”

      All that “wasted” time in High School studying physics, or Shakespeare or writing may actually contribute to people discovering that they like actuary science, or technical writing, or programming.  Or at the least expose them to things that they do NOT want to do so they don’t waste 5 years trying to make it work.Report

      • Kris in reply to A Teacher says:

        I hope you saw that my anti-high school argument was made ironically. (Indeed, I agree with your claim here.)

        My point is that if high school should be universal and affordable, then so should college and vice versa. That is to say, every argument that concludes that high school is worth it -whether the cost is born by the student or society- is equally valid in showing that college is worth it.

        There are a few students who should work for a few years to avoid student loans depending on a variety of factors: chosen profession, worst case scenario salary, interest rates, the size of the loan. (And obviously anyone should avoid loans if they can do so easily.

        However, I would not counsel many students to spend over a year before college working to save money before going to college. (As the author of this post seems to recommend. It works well for some students, especially if their parents’ friends can find them a good job or some such.) Most students work in low paying jobs that yield too little savings. Every year you work in a shitty job is a year out of the productive era of tour life where you could be earning more. That really, really hurts you financially. It can hurt a lot more than, say, 4 percent interest on 30 grand, minus tax dedcutions on the interest. Most students are better off rushing through college, getting a somewhat better paying job afterward and paying off a loan. The facts are that interest rates are low and interest on student loans is deductible. Of course everyone’s situation is different.

        If your chosen profession is artist -admirably- you might want to avoid 20,000, because the worst case scenario is a killer. If you are poor and want or are likely to get a lower-middle income job, say social worker, you have to be somewhat careful about going to a private school or fairly expensive State school without any scholarships. You might be better off doing some time at a community college and then transfer in to a less expensive college to keep costs down.

        Don’t get me wrong, I agree that college costs are crazy out of control. The CSU system here in CA is a good example of where the problem lies: wasted money on services, and fancy campus improvements, bloated administration, and -most damaging- a severe reduction of the amount of money provided by the state. (The money all goes to prisons via the war on dgs and to fund the foolish low taxes of prop 13.)Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Kris says:

      Diminishing returns, Kris. Supporting publicly afforded education up to a certain point does not obligate you to support it up to any point for the sake of consistency. It’s uncertain at what point the diminishing returns takes effect and the investment is no longer worthwhile, and to make matters more complicated it likely varies from individual to individual, but the negative returns do happen at some point.Report

      • Kris in reply to Will Truman says:

        Hmmm, I may have stated my position too strongly for rhetorical effect. I don’t mean to accuse anyone who supports universal college but not universal high school of some logical contradiction. I mean to argue something weaker.

        Let me take a subtler approach by asking a question. How is a four year college education different than a high school education in its worth? You say the latter is some how worth less -“diminish returns” you say- and I would agree that it is worth slightly less but not much. (Certainly, I agree that 50 years of education is worth not much more than 49.) What do you believe to be the specific differences between the worth of college and the last two years of high school, and why should we believe that there are such differences?

        Personally, I think my years in college and the final two years of high school were all roughly the same in terms of the worth of the education for me and society. None of the information I learned in any of those years helped me in my career in any way. Anything that I may have learned in those years that I have used would have been easily learned on the job.) However, all of these years benefitted me in terms of my growth as an educated person equally. (No cash value there, but the ideas themselves are worth the world to me in terms of happiness.) Certainly by grade 9 or 10 I knew enough about reading and reading and civics to be prepared to be a voter when I turned 18 amd if high school history and English made me a better citicizen, college did an even better job of making me a better citicizen.

        Granted, some of my friends use their high school or college education in their jobs -e.g. doctors, engineers- but these are rare professions. How was high school, especially the last few years, useful for me and most people? For the vast majority, college and high school are of the same value, no?

        So I don’t see how you are justified in saying that there is something about college that makes it worth more than, say, the last two years of high school. (Or the whole of high school.) What are the relevant differences, in your mind. (I can think of some, but they are small beer.)

        I do want to point out the value of keeping people in school for labor markets, too. It reduces the supply of labor and gives laborers of many stripes bargaining power to negotiate better wages. Imagine the effect of dumping a majority of college kids in to the labor market in terms of unemployment and wages. By comparison, if too many people entered college or if the average college degree was 10 years of full-time learning, that would impact society negatively in terms of productivity. (The current ballance of sending more people to school and college is largely dictated by the economy. In labor intensive agrarian societies, you can’t make do with too many work hours lost to school. But we are now more efficient meaning we have the opposite problem. There is not enough full-time work, so we try to fill it productively by pushing young people into education and older people into early retirement.)Report

        • Brandon Berg in reply to Kris says:

          Imagine the effect of dumping a majority of college kids in to the labor market in terms of unemployment and wages.

          We could counteract it by breaking a bunch of windows.Report

  16. Kazzy says:

    What is the value to students of professor research?  Lots of money is spent on this.  Students who get to work on such projects obviously benefit.  Students who get to learn from professors who might otherwise not be at the university save for the research opportunities have a benefit (presuming the professors are good at teaching).  The university likely derives some return on their investment.  But, overall, how does this work?  Does the money spent on research justify the expense passed on to the student body as a whole?Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to Kazzy says:

      University research is amazingly profitable.   For more on this subject, check out MUPReport

      • Kazzy in reply to BlaiseP says:


        I remember being bothered by the amount of money I saw my university spending on research, especially since many professors openly complained about the teaching requirements that went along with their research positions.  Certainly a place where colleges could better educate their students…Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:

      CMU makes tons of profit fromt heir research — government, corporate, blackops.

      “Students who get to work on such projects obviously benefit.” — only if they aren’t chemists. chemists do this whole “assembly line” thingy into grad school, and it really sucks.Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

      Most research is grant based — it doesn’t come out of tuition.

      I’m more curious about schools with giant endowments. I’m talking “Don’t technically have to charge anyone to attend, and still have plenty of money to grow the endowment left over” schools. (At least on of the Ivy leagues was in that position a few years ago. Recession might have screwed them, don’t know).

      What justification do they have charging tuition at all? Heck, they’re a non-profit, they’re not taxed, and they can be as picky as they like with applications. Why are they charging 20 to 40k a year when they’re already trying to find places to put the interest on their endowment?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Morat20 says:

        My school was in the top 10 nationally in endowment.  I didn’t really know what an endowment was, but seeing that number next to our name (I believe it was over a billion at the time) made me scratch my head.  Harvard appears to currently have a $31 billion endowment.Report

    • Jeff Wong in reply to Kazzy says:

      It helps the American public at large. The architect behind Mac OS X, Avi Tevanian, was trained at Carnegie Mellon.

      Money on research largely comes from government grants and partnerships from private businesses. Apple has a working relationship with U Nebraska at Omaha, where they specialize in electro-magnetic compliance. It’s a fringe area of electrical engineering. Apple puts down some money, the government chips in some for furthering the field in antenna research, Apple gets some great intern and you get super slim iPhones and iPads that don’t cause the plane you’re riding on to crash. MacBook Airs wouldn’t be as desirable and Apple wouldn’t be contending for the most valuable company in the America.Report

  17. Jesse Ewiak says:

    What Mike Konzcal said –

    “Are rates “artifically low,” thus bailing out student debtors? Right now, the United States can borrow for 10 years at real, or inflation-adjusted, interest rates that are negative. The 30-year conventional mortgage rateis the lowest its been in over 40 years. The market is using ultra-low interest rates to beg anyone who can make productive use of capital to borrow it  Educating our young citizens in universities that are the envy of the world certainly seems like a productive use of capital. So how is not jacking up interest rates when 10 year government debt yields are at ultra-low 2 percent rates the equivalent of paying AIG creditors at par during the financial bailouts?”

    “I like how he doesn’t mention that this actually runs a profit for taxpayers. From the Department of Education student loan overview (R-10): “For Direct Loans, the overall weighted average subsidy rate was estimated to be -13.91 percent in FY 2011; that is, the overall program on average was projected to earn about 13.91 percent on each dollar of loans made, thereby providing savings to the Federal Government.” Unless you start making up discount rates, these loans make a profit for taxpayers.

    As Alan White notes, according to the “Congressional Budget Office, $37 billion will flow IN to Treasury from student loans made this fiscal year at the 3.4% rate (on a net present value basis and net of about $1.5 billion to administer them.) ” If anything, we should make rates lower than 3.4 percent.”

    “As Demos notes in its 10 points on how student debt is blocking mobility, “In 1980, 39 percent of federal financial aid to undergraduates was in the form of loans, and 55 percent was awarded in grants. By 2008, this had shifted to 64 percent of the funds awarded as loans and only 26 percent as grants. Moreover, today’s maximum Pell Grant covers just over a third of the costs of attending a public 4-year university, down from over two-thirds in 1980.”

    Meanwhile, during the same time period, numerous legal restrictions have been put on student debt and protections have been stripped away, which means that the major government changes to student debt involve the it making it a harder, not easier, form of debt to manage. Nondischargeability went from five years to seven years in 1990, until it was revoked permanently in 1998 (when the statute of limitations was also removed). That was extended to for-profit student loans in 2005. Social Security became eligible for student loan collections in 1996. The argument that student debt became “lavish” during the past 20 years requires some additional work.

    And though some of the lower rates are captured by increased tuition because of inelastic supply — an argument that is equivalent to saying that free, “public option” public universities would thus contain runaway costs — current tuition movements look like they are being driven more by states cutting support for public universities during the Great Recession. As the CBPP notes, at least 43 states cut services to public higher education. That’s what is going to drive serious tuition increases in the next few years.

    (Digging into some of this research, the lack of decent empirical work linking increased aid to tuition increases is startling given how much movement conservatives rely on such an argument.)”

    “Sure, but right now these loans are profitable. As noted above, we spent the last 20 years stripping out protections from these loans to guarantee a high recovery rate. There’s no decent market rate to compare this to, given how thin and incomplete the private lending market is in this space. So why not fund it closer to where the government can borrow, adding in a small spread for administration and to cover losses?”Report

  18. Diablo says:

    As a current college student, finishing up his BS in mechanical engineering, I love hearing how more schools are looking to charge STEM students more per credit hour. Never mind we have to do more credit hours to get our degree…or the two or more lab fees I have averaged over the last five years…no I should have to pay more than some kid taking the easy route to a quick degree. And don’t tell me that STEM students cost more to train than non-stem as STEM majors routinely do research and earn patents that remain under the control of the institution they are going to.

    I keep hearing that the US is not producing enough STEM degree holders yet we offer kids the same about of financial support no matter what field they go into or their potential ability to pay. Hell, we don’t even consider a kids academic performance really just as long as they can get into any school, studying anything. Is it any wonder why most kids will choose to not pick a degree that will mean a commitment to a long term, time consuming path?Report

  19. Carl Nielson says:

    I haven’t read every blog entry but I did read many and find the conversation interesting and has helped me to stay open to all kinds of ideas and opinions. The point that we should scale back low interest loans for education because someone out there might not be mature enough to understand the full ramifications of building up debt seems a little like scaling back issuing drivers licenses because a few are not mature enough to be behind the wheel of a car. Hmmm.

    Offering lower interest rates as an incentive to go into “high need” areas/subjects (like STEM fields) is like placing a “high demand” tax on the most popular restaurants in order to get people to go to the least popular restaurants. Choosing a career and the educational strategy to support that career should never be about money. Give me a passionate engineer over 5 disenchanted, miserable engineers and I’ll win the science contest every time. The cost of job dissatisfaction is killing the U.S. competitiveness much more than the shortage of STEM graduates. What would happen if 100% of the workforce loved their job?

    The key is to do the research and plan while in high school. Most of what is offered in high school isn’t helpful for career and educational planning. In fact, many students feel they are more confused by the poor career counseling provided in high school. Perhaps could be made mandatory in high school or perhaps the student must show a certificate of completion of the program to qualify for a student loan. Just a thought…Report

    • Cheers, Carl! There is a perception that our colleges turn out too many lawyers and accountants and stockbrokers but not enough engineers and chemists and other hard science types. You may be right that some students would pursue engineering and become disaffected with it later in life; I can assure you, though, that plenty of the ones who pursue law and business burn out as it is. They are attracted to the money and glamour that SOME lawyers and financial types enjoy and when they find it’s a lot of hard work often for not so much reward, well, they become disaffected. They would be thus no matter what profession they pursue.

      But I don’t see the loan term differential as the government “picking winners and losers,” the same way your restaurant example would be. The government provides financial incentives all the time to encourage desired behavior. Agricultural subsidies and G.I. Bills and tax deductions and housing loan guarantees and the list goes on and on. If it is the case that we really have too many lawyers and not enough engineers then I think it’s appropriate for the government to incentivize corrective measures. Someone who wants to be a lawyer will still pursue that. But if student loans for engineering school are cheaper than for B-school, then those with no strong preference one way or another might take a closer look at something they might have eschewed with other factors being equal.

      The professions are not in competition with one another. At least not in the way restaurants are.Report

  20. Rufus F. says:

    A lot of people say we should think of universities more like businesses and ask why this particular industry is failing to produce what it promises for more and more money. I think the question would then be who the customers are? If students are the customers, it’s hard to think of how you could improve the service provided without driving away a good chunk of your customers in the process. If the standards go up, the enrollment goes down, and so does the revenue. It’s hard to think of another business that people say would be better run if they took more serious steps to drive off more of their customers. Trust me: universities do see students as their customers, which is why they focus so heavily on retention over education. However, we could conversely say that the white collar companies that hire the graduates are the customers and the students are the product, and, in if that’s the case, they should be the ones paying the tuition. Asking the students to pay for their own job training before they’ll consider hiring them seems like a bit of a scam.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Asking the students to pay for their own job training before they’ll consider hiring them seems like a bit of a scam.


      The idea of the university degree *AS SIGNAL* used to make sense to me. Here is someone who can finish what s/he starts and is intelligent/trainable enough to absorb on-the-job training… and when the price for this was around $5k/year, it made sense to do that and even be willing to go into debt (hey, not everybody can work a minimum wage job *AND* pay rent *AND* pay tuition *AND* get Bs).

      Now that schools cost 20k/year? I don’t know what the best trade-off is.

      I know that there are a number of folks who go to Community College and get all of the transferable credits they possibly can before transferring to a “real” college their last year and getting a “real” degree. I don’t know if this isn’t the smartest thing for a student to do.

      I know that if I were given a choice between hiring two kids and one went into debt for $80k so he could go to CU Boulder and the other went into debt for $7k, all told, because he worked his way through PPCC and transferred to UCCS his last year and graduated with the exact same degree… I’d be tempted to hire the latter. Different/better things are signaled by the latter student’s degree.Report