The college degree paradox

If a four-year college degree is the key to a well-paying job, then why are far fewer Americans making less than their parents?  “The Fading American Dream: Trends in Absolute Income Mobility Since 1940” found that the share of children with higher inflation-adjusted incomes than their parents declined from about 90 percent for those born in 1940 to just 50 percent for those born in 1984 (“Fewer Americans are making more than their parents did – especially if they grew up in the middle class,” Brookings, Jul. 25).

Yet during this same period, the percentage of Americans of both sexes earning a bachelor’s degree skyrocketed.  According to Statista, 3.8 percent of females and 5.5 percent of males in 1940 earned a bachelor’s degree.  In 1984, 15.7 percent of females and 22.9 percent of males did. This data call into question the assumption about the overall monetary value of a college degree.  Moreover, the data challenge the assumption that the affluent are those most likely to benefit.  According to the study, the bulk of the decline was concentrated toward the top of the income distribution.  Equally startling was that those born into the very bottom of the income distribution were still highly likely to earn more than their parents.

You don’t have to be a statistician to realize that something vital is being overlooked in the debate about the indispensability of a college degree.  I’ve written often about this assumption.  So much of the marketability of a degree depends on when it was earned, from which institution and in which major.  Yet we ignore these essential questions, preferring instead to make sweeping generalizations about the indispensability of a college degree for the financial future.  I continue to believe that when student loan debt is factored in, a college degree today is worth far less than believed.

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High standards and student enjoyment clash

Teachers can teach their subject well but teach their students to hate the subject in the process.  There’s now evidence to support that adage (“What Do We Know About Teacher Quality?” National Education Policy Center, Jul. 26).

A recent study in the peer-reviewed Education Finance and Policy found that “teachers who are skilled at improving students’ math achievement may do so in ways that make students less happy or less engaged in class.”  In other words, it’s a pyrrhic victory.

This conclusion has far-reaching implications for how teachers are rated. One of the most important goals of instruction is to make students lifelong learners. That means trying to inculcate positive attitudes about a particular subject.  If all we focus on is the ability of teachers to boost test scores, however, we will never know if they have been effective in non-cognitive areas.

One of the ways to get feedback is to ask students to complete a Likert inventory.  Students anonymously respond to a series of statements to which they register their agreement or disagreement.  Typically, their responses are on a five-choice agreement scale.  For young children, three response options (e.g. agree, don’t know or disagree) can be used.  Unfortunately, we give short shrift to students’ affective status.

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Measuring the value of a college degree

The Education Department intends to look at the earnings and debt of college graduates by major to help students compare schools and programs (“Will Majoring in Psychology Make You Better Off? The Government Wants to Know” (The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2.)  I support the move, but I hasten to point out an important caveat.

The value of a college degree should not be weighed solely in terms of its market value.  There are benefits that go beyond salaries earned.  These non-pecuniary rewards will be given short shrift under the proposed Education Department’s plan.  Nevertheless, I believe the intent is admirable.  The reality is that too many students are going into heavy personal debt to earn a degree in a field for which there is little demand. Decades ago when tuition was a fraction of what it is today, students had the luxury of studying whatever happened to catch their interest.  That is no longer the case.

I’ve written often about the harm being done to students by the sheepskin obsession.  The oft-quoted wage premium attached to a college degree is substantially reduced when the major studied is factored in.  It is further diminished when loan repayment is included.  Yet we persist in the fiction that college is for everyone.  It is what Charles Murray correctly calls “educational romanticism.”

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Special-ed students in charter schools

Special-education students in charter schools deserve the same support as their counterparts in traditional public schools.  Unfortunately, that is not the case in New York City, where those enrolled in the Success Academy charter schools are denied the help they would otherwise get in regular public schools (“Special-ed kids suffer in de Blasio’s grudge against Success Academy,” New York Post, Jul. 21).

The Department of Education in New York City processes only three percent of special-ed applications for Success Academy within the legally required 60-day time period, as opposed to 66 percent for traditional public schools.  That’s outrageous, which is why a lawsuit has been filed by Success Academy on behalf of six parents.  Special-ed students shouldn’t be used as pawns by those opposed to charter schools for one reason or another.

 

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Yeshivas can’t have it both ways

Although New York State law requires that nonpublic schools must provide an education “substantially equivalent” to that of public schools, a lawsuit says many yeshivas do not (“A Law Tailored for Orthodox Jewish Schools Is Unconstitutional, Lawsuit Says,” The New York Times, Jul. 23).  That’s because these ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools exist primarily to study Jewish texts, which denies students instruction in English, math, science, and American history.

Supporters of yeshivas argue that the number of hours spent on secular subjects is not an indication of a quality education.  There is some truth to that view.  But how else can the education offered by yeshivas be objectively measured?  If yeshiva students were required to take state tests, then perhaps the results would answer the question.  But they are not required to do so.

I support parental choice, but I also support the law.  Exempting yeshivas from the state law creates a dangerous precedent that other nonpublic schools will eventually cite to avoid accountability.  Lost in all of this, of course, are the students who are being shortchanged for life after graduation.

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Integrating school districts is daunting

School districts are permitted under federal law to use race as one factor in devising voluntary integration plans.  But how to do so remains one of the most controversial issues in education today (“Rollback of Affirmative Action Guidelines Could Reshape K-12 School Districts,” The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 14).

Jefferson County School District in Louisville, Ky. found that out when it attempted to have black students constituting no less than 15 percent and no more than 50 percent, with bused students providing the desired balance.  The plan was rejected by the court.

The problem is that schools have no control over housing patterns.  I remember vividly what happened at the high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where I spent my entire 28-year career after the court ordered busing to achieve a stipulated racial balance.  Although black and white parents supported the goal of integrating schools, they opposed busing.

I don’t think much has changed in this regard.  Until neighborhoods are racially integrated, most parents will continue to oppose busing and other forced strategies.

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Are robo-graders the answer to English teachers prayers?

If the Educational Testing Service and its competitors are right, the lives of English teachers across the country will get a lot easier this fall thanks to various automated scoring programs that can grade student essays in a fraction of the time teachers spend.  Artificial intelligence techniques can now judge anywhere from 50 to 100 features, with more likely to come (“Automated Essay Scoring Remains An Empty Dream,” Forbes, Jul. 2).

But whether they can identify good writing is an entirely different story, which is why English teachers remain skeptical.  They don’t dispute the ability of robo-graders to rapidly scan student essays for basics like spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. They’re grateful for being relieved of that drudgery. Evaluating creativity, however, remains beyond robo-graders’ capability.

That’s the essence of the controversy.  All art forms by their very nature are idiosyncratic.  If they weren’t distinctive, they wouldn’t receive critical acclaim.  AI is a whiz at carrying out formulaic tasks.  When it comes to assessing originality, however, it fails. If that were not so, then editors at all major newspaper would rely on robo-graders to determine which op-eds to publish. Think of the cost savings that would accrue if computers could do a better job.

High school English teachers are unique among their colleagues because of the heavy paper load they carry.  Composition classes eventually require students to engage in what is called a creative response, rather than a selected response. Teachers of other subjects routinely use multiple-choice and true-or-false questions to determine what their students have learned.  These tests can be machine scored rapidly, cheaply and objectively.

Essays that are designed to probe the ability of students to make an argument, for example, take time and thought to evaluate.  If all we want are students who can demonstrate their basic knowledge by writing a two-or-three sentence paragraph, then robo-graders are indeed a godsend.

Yet taxpayers demand more of schools than just that. They want evidence of critical thinking.  AI is presently used by Utah and Ohio, as well as by several other states in scoring their standardized tests.  Massachusetts, which is known for the quality of its public schools, is considering using robo-graders on its state-wide Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests.  Whether education officials there will be satisfied is unclear.

The National Council of Teachers of English correctly predicts that students will eventually learn how to game the system.  There’s already evidence that this is happening.  Essays making little sense can receive a high score as long they tick off all the boxes that robo-graders seek.  Length, for example, impresses the computer. Therefore, if Lincoln’s 272-word Gettysburg Address were submitted, it would be downscored for its brevity compared with, say, a typical State of the Union address.

Lofty words and key phrases also rate high in the mind of a computer.  But these alone do not constitute graceful writing. In fact, they detract from it, as Ernest Hemingway proved.  Vendors will argue that they can minimize such shortcomings by tweaking their products.  I doubt that.

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College grad underemployment is risky

If a college degree is the key to a well-paying job, then how to explain the results of the latest study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York?   It found nearly 43 percent of recent graduates are working in positions that do not require a degree (“Settling for subpar job right out of college can hurt your career for years ” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 13).

Making matters worse, the longer grads stay in these jobs, the worse their career prospects become.  Let’s not forget that this situation is exacerbated by heavy student loan debt.  Despite this bleak picture, we persist in the fiction that college is still for everyone.  I’ve not seen a study that compares lifetime incomes of vocationally-educated students with academically-educated students.  By the time student debt is paid off, I wonder if the premium attached to a four-year degree would be nearly so high.

Better yet, how about a study of students who went to community college and earned a certificate in a trade with students who went to a four-year college and received a degree in the humanities.  Instead, we have generalizations about the marketable value of a bachelor’s degree.  I’m not saying that college should be evaluated solely by what graduates earn over a lifetime.  There are clearly other benefits.  But the cost of a four-year degree today is unprecedented.  Try telling graduates who are struggling to pay their bills that they made the right decision.

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If literacy is not a right, what is?

Of all the things public schools are supposed to teach, literacy has to be the most important.  Yet a Federal District Court in Michigan ruled that it is not a fundamental right (“ ‘Access to Literacy’ Is Not a Constitutional Right, Judge in Detroit Rules,” The New York Times, Jul. 5).  Public Counsel, which led the legal team representing the students in the class-action suit, intends to appeal.

It’s hard to understand the judge’s thinking.  He agreed that giving students the opportunity to learn to read was “of incalculable importance.”  He also said that conditions at some Detroit schools were “nothing short of devastating.”  Yet despite these acknowledgments, he dismissed the suit. I’d like to know what would persuade the judge to reverse himself?

It’s important to note that the state had been managing Detroit’s schools when such an outrage took place.  I stress that fact because there is widespread belief that states are better at operating failing schools than local authorities.  Clearly, this is not the case in Michigan.  I intend to closely follow the case as it is appealed.

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Teachers’ summer jobs are essential

One of the myths that refuses to die is that teachers spend the entire summer relaxing (“ ‘It’s the Only Way.’ These teachers Are Working Summer Jobs to Make Ends Meet,” Money, Jul. 12).  But teachers are 30 percent more likely to have second jobs than non-teachers.  And summer is particularly when they try to make ends meet.

I realize that the cost of living varies enormously across the nation.  Yet $59,660, which is the average salary earned by the 3.1 million public school teachers during the 2016-17 school year, isn’t very much.  In Los Angeles, for example, housing takes a huge bit out of monthly income, with a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Santa Monica typically going for $2,800.

It’s not unusual for teachers to hold second jobs during the regular academic year, as well as during the summer.  In Texas, 31 percent did so during the academic year.  I remember being taken aback as a child when I saw one of my teachers working as a bartender.  Today, they’re more likely to be Uber drivers.

Moonlighting for teachers is not new, but the percentage of teachers doing so is unprecedented.  It’s little wonder that the best and the brightest college graduates shun teaching as a career.  They may teach for a few years before moving on, but few make it a lifelong commitment.

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