Showing posts with label liberal arts degrees. Show all posts
Showing posts with label liberal arts degrees. Show all posts

Friday, April 10, 2020

"If I were a carpenter": Manual skills will be more valuable than a liberal arts degree in the post-coronavirus economy

If I were a carpenter, and you were a lady
Would you marry me anyway?
Would you have my baby?

Tim Hardin
Sung best by Johnny Cash and June Carter

James Howard Kunstler wrote somewhere that in the coming age, carpenters will be more valued than people who design video games (or words to that effect). Kunstler's observation worried me because I have no mechanical skills at all, although I am a pretty good gardener.

Kunstler is right, and the coming age is now. Coronavirus is transforming the American economy. Millions of jobs have been lost that won't come back. All of a sudden, it matters if a person has real skills. A carpenter is going to be more valued in the years ahead than a sociology professor.

Americans have indulged themselves in the acquisition of meaningless university degrees--hundreds of thousands of degrees, and they will soon learn that all the millions of hours spent in university classrooms won't help them feed themselves.

I should know. I have been a university professor for 25 years, and I sat on dozens of dissertation committees. I would be embarrassed to list the titles of some of the dissertations I approved.  I remember one doctoral student at the University of Houston who wrote his thesis on what it felt like to be a graduate student.  I feel sure he is a tenured professor at some obscure regional university.

During my years in the Alice and Wonderland world of higher education, I stumbled across several instances of plagiarism. No plagiarist I discovered was ever kicked out of graduate school.  We treated plagiarism like a punctuation error--easily corrected.

All this foolishness was financed by the federal student-loan program, the Pell Grant program, and various forms of state and federal government support. And most of the people who acquired frothy university degrees got jobs--often soft-skill jobs in the public sector.  But few people who collected these degrees learned how to make anything useful.

Of course, not all higher education is vacuous. Programs in engineering, the medical profession, law, and accounting all teach useful skills. And several of my colleagues in my own field, which is education, are excellent scholars and dedicated teachers. I cast no aspersions on their work. But in general, the fields of education, liberal arts, and social studies offer degrees that lack real substance.

As I write this, nearly 17 million Americans are out of work, and this is just the first wave of job losses. Before the end of this year, people in government and education are going to feel the cold breath of a new Depression.  Experts reasonably predict that the unemployment rate in this country will reach 30 percent.

The world of higher education is in for a rude shock. Slovenly professors, who did very little work and made rare appearances on campus dressed in gym clothes, are going to lose their cushy sinecures.  If they are smart, they will acquire a craft skill and retool themselves as carpenters, plumbers, electricians, or technical workers.

As the job market for college professors collapses--and it will collapse, few laid-off professors are going to find new positions in academia. So If they don't retool, they will be forced on the dole, subsisting on food stamps and living with someone who has a real job.  

As for the people who took out student loans to get frivolous degrees, they are going to find it damned difficult to get a decent job and even more challenging to pay off their student debt. They, too, will need to master a useful skill if they aspire to own a home, get married, or have children.






Thursday, September 19, 2019

The enrollment crash is an existential threat to liberal arts colleges: Bucknell VP Bill Conley's insightful essay

Bill Conley, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bucknell University, wrote a perceptive essay for Chronicle of Higher Education about the "Great Enrollment Crash" at liberal arts colleges. There has been a huge downturn in undergraduate education at liberal arts colleges, and no turnaround is in sight. As Conley put it:
Higher education has fully entered into a new structural reality. You'd be na├»ve to believe that most colleges will be able to ride out this unexpected wave [ declining enrollment] as we have the previous swells.
What's going on?

First, as Conley explains, the demographics are bad. Americans are having fewer children. In fact, the birth rate has fallen below replacement levels in the U.S., just as it has in Europe. There are fewer high school graduates who want to go to college.

Secondly, the demand for a liberal arts education has plummeted. As Conley reports, degrees in the humanities dropped from 17 percent of all degrees in 1967 to just 5 percent in 2015.

Moreover, the current crop of college students is more focused than past generations on getting a college degree that will lead to a good job. More and more students are choosing to major in business, biology, or economics, while philosophy majors are becoming an endangered species.

The liberal arts colleges have responded to this threat by slashing tuition prices for incoming first-year students. On average,  the colleges are only collecting half their posted tuition rates. Colleges hoped to attract more students by lowering tuition, but that strategy hasn't worked for many of them.

Of course, the liberal arts colleges aren't the only sector of higher education facing enrollment declines. As Conley pointed out, the Pennsylvania System of Higher Education has seen its public institutions lose 20 percent of their enrollments in less than 10 years.

Increasingly, families are looking to more affordable public universities for their children's college education and eschewing the small, private liberal arts schools. The obscure, non-elite liberal arts colleges are suffering the most, and several have closed in recent years.

"I don't see these trends changing," Conley wrote, "especially when coupled with stagnating income and the resulting pressure on a family's return-on-investment calculus." In short, he summarized, "Disruption is here to stay."

I agree with Mr. Conley's forthright assessment of liberal arts education; and personally, I think it is doomed. Liberal arts colleges were founded to educate students in the humanities, literature, history, and philosophy; but few students appreciate those fields of study. Furthermore, the liberal arts have been balkanized, as faculty obsess on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation so that there is no longer even a broad consensus about what constitutes a liberal arts education.

In my view, I think the small, liberal arts colleges should prepare for a dignified death because they are going to die anyway. They need to develop contingency plans for placing their students in other institutions when they close and they need to make the best provision they can for laid-off faculty members--many of whom will be unable to find new jobs. After all, what university wants to hire a middle-aged philosophy professor?

This is a sad turn of events, and I do not think the liberal arts colleges brought this calamity on themselves. Rather they are like the blacksmiths of the early twentieth century, who were put out of work by Henry Ford's cars.

I don't have a solution to this existential crisis among the small, private schools. But I have some advice for students who are choosing a college. Don't enroll at an expensive, obscure, private college. Get your degree from a reputable public institution.

And if you are a newly minted Ph.D. looking for your first academic job, don't go to work at a small liberal-arts college. Even if you get tenure at some out-of-the-way little school in New England or the Midwest, that won't keep you from being laid off. And once you lose that tenured job at a college that was closed, you will find it damned hard to get another one.


Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Don't Go To College, Says Kurt Schlichter; And By God, He May Be Right!

Kurt Schlichter wrote a sprightly essay for Townhall last month, arguing vigorously that young people should just skip college. "What passes for 'education' today is nothing of the sort," Schlichter writes, "and what calls itself 'academia' is really just a venal trade guild packed with mediocrities desperately trying to keep fooling people into forking over $60,000 a year--usually obtained via ruinous borrowing that ties a financial anchor around the defrauded grads' necks for the rest of their lives."

Who can disagree? As Schlichter says, "much of academia's product is largely garbage," particularly in the liberal arts. People are now graduating with English degrees without having read Shakespeare, or without knowing how to spell Shakespeare, for that matter.

Of course higher education argues ad nauseam that a degree in liberal arts has some intrinsic worth. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it years ago:
Education is, most of all, for the enlargement and the enjoyment of life. It is education that opens the window for the individual on the pleasures of language, literature, art, music, the diversities and idiosyncrasies of the world scene. The well-educated over the years and centuries have never doubted their superior reward; it is greater educational opportunity that makes general and widespread this reward.
 But who believes that anymore? Administrators at small liberal arts colleges purr seductively about the value of a liberal education while they lay off history professors to beef up their MBA programs-where the real money is. And ever so earnestly, they defend inflated tuition prices even as they discount their tuition rates by half.

Really, why pay good money for a liberal arts degree? Why study American literature if professors cannot identify a canon of great American writers? Why read Faulkner, Hawthorne, Henry James, Melville, or Fitzgerald if the English faculty writes them all off as a bunch of dead, white, misogynistic and racist males?

And in truth, I would not advise a young person to invest much time in reading William Faulkner or Henry James. Or Steinbeck, for that matter, although The Grapes of Wrath speaks to me as a great book, probably because I am a descendant of Okies.  

In fact, American writers are still writing great books, maybe better books than the ones our old professors said we must read. T.C. Boyle's Tortilla Curtain is as searing a book as you will ever read about being a despised refugee in America, every bit as good as The Grapes of Wrath. And although The Great Gatsby may be the great American novel, Tom Wolf's Bonfire of the Vanities, a more contemporary tale, describes the emptiness of wealth just as movingly as Fitzgerald's classic.

Today, American society has become so diverse that it makes no sense to argue that there are great American novels that everyone should read or even an accepted narrative of American history that everyone should learn. I read Marquis James' Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Andrew Jackson and was convinced Jackson was a great American. But we may take Old Hickory off the $20 bill; and if we do, he won't be coming back.

I read Douglas Southall Freeman's multi-volume biography of Robert E. Lee and concluded that General Lee was a decent man. But New Orleans ripped Lee's statue of its pedestal at Lee's Circle, and Lee definitely won't be coming back. 

Maybe we should all construct our own personal canon of great books, our own personal narrative of history.  As a Catholic, for example, I consider the Philadelphia Bible Riots every bit as important as the so-called Boston Massacre, but few people would agree with me. And for me, the great coming-of-age novel is not Catcher in the Rye by that sleazebag J.D. Salinger, but Richard Bradford's Red Sky at Morning, a book about being young in northern New Mexico during World War II.

But if we are all free to construct our own canon of literature and our own narrative of history, which liberal arts professors are basically arguing we should do, then why the hell should we pay sixty grand a year for our kids to attend some moldy liberal arts college in the upper Midwest?

Because the colleges need your money, I suppose. And if you don't have sixty grand, don't worry. The government is quite willing to loan it to you.

References

Kurt Schlichter. Don't Go To College, Townhall, March 22, 2018.



Monday, March 6, 2017

Newman University and Paula Maxine Edwards: Does a college have a moral duty to warn students that some of its programs are not financially worthwhile?

Paula Edwards attended Newman University to become a school teacher. 

Paula Edwards, a single mother with two children, obtained a bachelor's degree in education from Newman University, a small Catholic college located in Wichita, Kansas. Newman's tuition rates are higher than public universities in Kansas, but Edwards chose Newman because she could take most of her classes in the evening while continuing to work as a paralegal.

Edward's education degree qualified her for a job in education, and in the fall of 2016 she was in her fourth year as an elementary school teacher in Wellington, Kansas. Edwards' teaching job does not pay well; she makes only $35,300 a year. Moreover, unless she obtains more education, Edwards' salary will not go up much. In fact, her salary is capped at $35,700--only $400 a year more than she is making now.

Most people who choose the teaching profession are attracted by the intangible rewards of educating children; they realize they will never become rich. Unfortunately, Edwards chose to get her teacher training at an expensive college, and she had to borrow a lot of money to get her degree. In fact, in 2015, when she filed for bankruptcy, Edwards owed $151,000 in student loans.

Obviously, there is no plausible scenario whereby Edwards can pay back $151,000 on a salary of $35,000. In fact, she seems like an ideal candidate for bankruptcy.  But when Edwards filed for bankruptcy in 2015, she was confronted by a major obstacle. Under Section 523(a)(8) of the Bankruptcy Code, debtors cannot discharge their student loans in bankruptcy unless they can show undue hardship. And this is very hard to do.

Remarkably, Edwards won something of a victory in a Kansas bankruptcy court. Although the bankruptcy judge refused to relieve her of $72,000 in federal student loans, the judge did discharge her private student loans--about $58,000.  Essentially, the judge forced Edwards to sign up for an income-driven repayment plan (IDR) for her federal loans with monthly payments set at only $21 a month based on her current salary. If she makes regular payments for 20 years, the balance of her loan will be forgiven.

But here's the problem with  Edwards' IDR--assuming she enrolls in the plan the government offered. Interest is accruing on the $72,000 Edwards owes on her student loans, and $21 a month doesn't begin to pay that interest. All unpaid interest will be capitalized and added to her loan balance.

Given her likely income trajectory as a Kansas school teacher, Edwards will probably owe twice what she borrowed when her 20-year repayment plan comes to an end in 2036.

But it gets worse. The federal government considers a forgiven loan as taxable income. Thus, Edwards could be forced to pay taxes on $150,000 in so-called "income," because that is probably the amount she will owe when her 20-year repayment plan is concluded.

If Edwards were indebted for any reason other than her student loans, she could shed her debts in bankruptcy and get the "fresh start" that bankruptcy is intended to provide. But the "undue hardship" rule in the Bankruptcy Code has probably forced her into a repayment plan that will stretch over the majority of her working life. She will be 56 when her payment obligations stop and she will face a whopping tax bill.

Newman College bears some responsibility for Edwards' plight.

Tuition and fees at Newman amount to almost $28,000 a year; and that does not include books and living expenses. No wonder Edwards owes $151,000 in student loans.

Does Newman University bear any responsibility for what happened to Edwards? I think it does. Surely Newman officials should have warned Edwards that it would not work out for her financially if she borrowed money to get a Newman degree in order to become a school teacher.

Nicholas Eberstadt, writing for zerohedge.com, reported recently that a lot of graduates believe their college studies were not worthwhile. People who graduated in liberal arts or social studies were particularly dissatisfied. In a survey of 1800 graduates, more than two thirds of psychology graduates said their degrees were "not worth it."  And almost half the people who graduated in fine arts, history, geography, and politics expressed the same view.

Eberstadt's report did not include any data for people who graduate in the field of education, but I feel sure a great many people who chose to get education degrees from expensive private colleges regret their decision.  More than 20 years after getting a doctorate in education policy from Harvard, I can assure you that my Harvard experience was extravagantly overpriced.

Eberstadt argues persuasively that the federal government has fueled the demand for postsecondary education by offering students cheap money to go to college. "Loaning these funds at below market interest rates and backing up these risky loans has led to massive malinvestment . . ." Eberstadt wrote.

Eberstadt is right. And Paula Edwards, who borrowed more than $100,000 in good faith to attend an expensive private college in order to become an elementary-school teacher, is just one among millions of casualties of our disastrous federal loan program.

Harvard Graduate School of Education: an elite school for suckers


References

Tyler Durden. The Most (And Least) Worthwhile Degrees. zerohedge.com (March 5, 2017).

Edwards v. Navient Solutions, Inc., 561 B.R. 848 (D. Kan. 2016).