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As students and parents assess college options, debates continue over the value and costs of a college degree. Many find it difficult to know how to evaluate their choices, whether it’s through college rankings, graduation rates, or future employment. We explore the issues around the value of a higher degree, and ways it might be measured, including the College Scorecard, introduced by President Barack Obama last year.
- Andrew Gillen Senior Researcher, Education Sector, American Institutes for Research
- David Bergeron Vice President for Postsecondary Education, Center for American Progress
- Debra Humphreys Vice President for Policy and Public Engagement, Association of American Colleges and Universities
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, it's college admission season, and, as students and parents considered their options, many found it difficult to assess the costs and value of an education at different institutions.
MR. MARC FISHERAre college rankings important? Should you focus on whether a pricey private institution will pay off in future employment? Now the federal government is weighing in with new tools. President Obama last year launched the college scorecard, aiming to help students better compare everything from tuition to graduation rates.
MR. MARC FISHERJoining us to discuss whether such efforts to quantify the value of a college education might hit the target or miss the point of higher learning, we have Debra Humphreys. She's vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Welcome.
MS. DEBRA HUMPHREYSGlad to be here.
FISHERDavid Bergeron is vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. And he previously served in the U.S. Department of Education, most recently as acting assistant secretary. Welcome.
MR. DAVID BERGERONThank you. Glad to be here.
FISHERAnd Andrew Gillen is a senior researcher in the education sector at the American Institutes for Research. Thanks for coming in.
MR. ANDREW GILLENThanks for having me.
FISHERSo I guess we should start out by wondering whether, after all these years of questions about what the value of college is, is that a valid question? I mean, there was certainly a time when people just took that granted. College was the thing to aim for. And now, more and more, it seems to be -- the question seems to be put -- made subject to all of these economic and other analyses. David Bergeron, why don't you start us off? Is it a valid question to ask whether colleges at all worth the cost?
BERGERONI -- it's certainly a valid question, something we need to talk about, think about, and continue to do research around. But I think the -- every indication is that college pays for itself. It returns on that investment in the vast majority of cases and therefore is what we want for our children, the ability to go to college and be prepared for a life after college, a career after college, the ability to do something meaningful with their lives as a result of that collegiate experience.
FISHERAnd, Debra Humphreys, we are hearing more and more questioning about this sort of root question. You know, is it worth it? Why is that question being asked more now? Is it because we're in hard times? Are there other factors?
HUMPHREYSI think that there's two aspects of it. Certainly, it is because we're in tough times right now. And coming out of this really, really deep recession, it's not surprising at all that parents and students would be asking the question, well, this is a big investment, going to college, of both time and money, and I want to be sure that it pays off.
HUMPHREYSBut I think, as David said, the economic data is very, very clear that, even in tough times, maybe even -- especially in tough times, those who have a college degree are doing -- it's hard, but they're doing much better than if you didn't go to college. And that's just purely in economic terms. I think that something that is often lost in this conversation is the broader value of a college education and a more highly educated populace for our society, for fueling the economy, but also for our democracy.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850. Let us know if you think college is still worth the price tag, even if it means taking on additional student loan debt. Did you take out loans to go to college? Did you think it was the right move? And did the amount that you did take out prove to be too burdensome? Let us know. You can email us at kojo -- that's K-O-J-O -- @wamu.org. Or get in touch with us by sending a tweet to @kojoshow. Let us know how you measure the value of a college degree.
FISHERAnd, Andrew Gillen from the American Institutes for Research, what about the critics who say that, in the name of -- that federal student aid is basically subsidizing private institutions, in other words, that what we have going on is a case in which people who can't afford to go to school are getting aid, and these institutions that otherwise would not survive in the market are doing so?
GILLENYeah. That's gaining a lot of attention right now, particularly in the for-profit sector. And one of the interesting things about this is that pretty much all schools, regardless of whether they're public or private, are getting the vast majority of the money from public funds. What distinguishes them is that the public schools are tending to get -- as a direct appropriation, whereas, for private schools, this is being funneled through the aid systems.
GILLENNow, in theory, if you give students the kind of access to all these loans and grants and allow them to choose, that should provide more competitive pressure for colleges to improve. We aren't seeing as much of that as we'd like, mostly because the students aren't -- don't have enough information to make as well informed decisions as we'd like them to.
FISHERWe started off by talking about the new role of the federal government in taking a look at rating colleges. And, David Bergeron, the government is looking at colleges and universities in part because of concerns about student debt. You were involved in the creation of this college scorecard that the president announced a little over a year ago. Tell us what that tool is and what it's supposed to measure.
BERGERONWell, the college scorecard really is an attempt by the federal government to put certain key indicators of -- about institutions in one place so that everyone can go in and get that information. And it's things that are simple, like graduation rates, amount of debt students take on, the repayment rates on that debt.
BERGERONAnd ultimately the goal is to add to that, labor market outcomes, earnings of graduates from the institution, so that we're able to have, you know, a few key indicators of performance that families can focus on, compare across institutions, and across sectors of institutions so that they can really make much better choices than they have been able to in the past.
FISHERThis focus on earnings after college, it seems to be getting a lot of the attention these days. It's certainly catnip to the media. And yet, you know, as a parent of a high school senior, I've had a lot of conversations this year with kids about college and what happens thereafter.
FISHERI have to say that not once in any conversation did the question of what will this college enable me to earn after school come up. It just was never a factor in kids' minds. So does this just mean that adolescents don't think that far ahead? Or are we putting too much emphasis on this question of wages after school and what that tells us about the quality of a college? Debra Humphreys.
HUMPHREYSYeah. I think, again, it's not surprising that certain people are concerned about wages after college. I think the challenge is that what -- while, on average, it's absolutely clear that you're going to earn more money if you have a college degree, we also know that we -- the wages vary tremendously depending on where you live and what kind of work you're in.
HUMPHREYSAnd I think that most students and their parents, of course, they're concerned about long-term professional success as one of the outcomes of college. But I think most students and parents also want fulfilling lives, and they want jobs that are not just any job or not even just a job that pays a lot of money but a job that really works for the individual student, that fulfills that student.
HUMPHREYSI think one of the big concerns we have in using a simple metric about salaries, say, average salaries of an entire class, to evaluate the value of an institution is so much of that average is going to be influenced by things that are completely beyond the control of the institution. We pay engineers a whole lot more money than we pay elementary school teachers or social workers. But our society needs social workers and engineers and nurses and teachers and all kinds of different people.
HUMPHREYSAnd we shouldn't really be punishing a school that's doing a good job, not overburdening their students with debt but graduating a lot of students who might, in fact, be quite fulfilled as social workers or teachers, might not make a huge amount of money but will get a job and will be well educated and satisfied in that job. So it's a very complicated picture. It's not that you don't want to ask about salaries. But you want to ask sort of the long-term picture about salaries, not just the short-term.
FISHERLet's hear from John in Sterling, Va. John, you're on the air.
JOHNWell, thank you. Good morning. I'm about to retire. But in my experience -- and part of that experience was as a hiring manager, hiring computer engineers -- it's not so much where you went to school but what you learned while you were in school. And it seems to me like, several years down the road from graduation, nobody cares where you went anymore. All they care about is what you know how to do.
HUMPHREYSYeah. I -- that's an excellent point. Gallup just released a new study yesterday that that pretty much confirms what you said, that it matters a whole lot more what you actually do in college than the specific institution you went to. And there are some things that students really need to focus on that employers keep telling us. We've done many surveys of employers asking them, you know, what do you need college graduates to know and be able to do?
HUMPHREYSAnd students tend to focus on their major, like the specific choice of major. But what we found was almost all the employers we talked to said it's much more important that you demonstrate that you can solve complex problems, think critically, and communicate clearly. And that's way more important than what you major in. So I think you're absolutely right. What you do in college is way more important than where you go.
FISHERThanks for the call, John. And, David Bergeron, why -- the college scorecard that the federal government has put out focuses on four key elements: the cost of school, graduation rate, the median amount that students borrow, and the loan default rate. Why should those metrics be more important than things like faculty contact, quality of teaching, the time students spend studying, the rigor of the curriculum, those kinds of things?
BERGERONWell, those items you just listed are great and important things for families to consider as they choose colleges. It's just that there isn't good data on it. The things that you kind of fall back on are things where there are actually data. And the reason why earnings outcomes are not included on the current scorecard is because there wasn't that kind of data available. It's data that's being developed by the federal government.
BERGERONBut it is critical, I think, in the long term. I will say one thing that I have observed is it depends on where you are in life. I have a -- you have a high school senior in your household. I have a college senior in mine. And job prospects and earnings after college now take on greater importance at that point. And so if we can bring that into people's consciousness earlier in the process, I think we'd all be better served.
FISHERAnd, in addition to this college scorecard that we talked about, in August, the president called for a rating system that would actually evaluate the kinds of values that a college offers. How does that differ from the other tool?
BERGERONOK. So the scorecard is a consumer choice tool. It's intended to be used by family, sitting at a kitchen table, and comparing institutions. Our rating system is really designed to broadly classify institutions into categories that deal with whether they're being successful and serving their students as an evaluative tool. And one way to think about this is, you know, we grade lots of things in our economy, and, you know, we assign letter grades or color grades. We suggested in a paper that I released last fall, you know, grading some institutions platinum because they provide access.
BERGERONThey are affordable. They have great graduation rates, and they have good outcomes after graduation for their students. And then there are other institutions that don't graduate nearly as many students as we would like them to. They have bad economic outcomes. Often, they're for-profit schools, cost a lot of money. They're not really affordable. And those institutions, we really should be looking at long and hard before we grant them additional access to federal resources.
FISHERAndrew Gillen, I gather you have some concerns about this scorecard and what it's being used for.
GILLENYeah. So with the college ratings, there's really kind of a tension right now in whether they want it to be another one of these consumer information tools or whether they want it to be an accountability tool. And if it's a consumer information tool I think there are better things out there, like the college score card, and even just kind of Consumer Reports-type publications that will evaluate college on all sorts of different measures and all sorts of different ways.
GILLENSo I don't have a lot of confidence in the rating system being useful as a consumer information tool. I do see a lot of potential for it as an accountability tool. Because right now we basically have a one-size-fits-all system for colleges. If you convince an accreditor that you're a college, you get the same access to these financial aid programs as any other school.
GILLENBut that' basically treating the high performers and the low performers exactly the same. So if this rating system can distinguish between high performers and low performers, then we can start to maybe treat the colleges differently and reward success and kind of punish failure. Having said that, we don't know what the rating system looks like yet. So it's still very much up in the air. But I think it's got a lot of potential.
FISHERDebra Humphreys, part of the confusion here about -- or controversy over whether these kinds of tools are really the right way to judge a college, may come down to the idea that there are really two different worlds of colleges out there.
FISHERThere are the liberal arts schools that are really about learning for learning sake, and then there are schools that are more oriented toward careers, community colleges and the like, where a lot of the majors do lead directly to a particular field of work. Are those two very different worlds? And should they have different kinds of rating and ranking systems?
HUMPHREYSI don't think so actually. I think that I actually wouldn't divide the world of higher education into those two buckets. I think that we actually see in our membership -- we have about 1,300 colleges, roughly half public, half private, two-year, four-year, small liberal arts colleges, big research universities. And I think all of them are concerned about making sure that students have a quality undergraduate experience that sets them up for success in life.
HUMPHREYSAnd increasingly what you hear from employers is they don't use the language of liberal education, but the outcomes of a good liberal education are what they're looking for. Whether you're majoring in nursing at a big open access, public institution in California or you're majoring in sociology or philosophy at a small liberal arts college, those students need jobs as well.
HUMPHREYSThey also shouldn't be borrowing too much money. So I think that the broad outcomes, the broad goals of the ratings system are true for all students. And I certainly agree that we need better tools to figure out whether there are some institutions that are behaving so poorly on some of these outcomes that they maybe don't deserve to get student aid.
HUMPHREYSThe tricky part is for a given student, for your son or daughter who's looking for a college, it really -- there are so many other factors that have to do with that student and that student's goals and where he or she wants to end up in life, that I'm not sure that the current rating system proposal is going to give the information that that student really needs.
HUMPHREYSIt'll give some basic information about graduation rates. Those are important, obviously. Student loan default rates, those are important. But ultimately, when you're making the decision about making this big an investment, you also want to look at what the programs are. Are they really going to get you engaged in your learning in a way that's going to set you up for long-term success? And we are pretty skeptical that the data that we currently have available for this kind of rating system is going -- we're skeptical about two things.
HUMPHREYSOne is it actually going to give you good information? And two, could it introduce, sort of, distortions in the system and give misinformation to students about that is a good college for them, not just in general?
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break we will talk about the value of college and the impact of student loan debt on this whole discussion. That's after a short break. Please stay tuned.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about the value of education, particularly of college. You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. And we are talking with Andrew Gillen, from the American Institutes for Research, David Bergeron, from the Center for American Progress, and Debra Humphreys, from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
FISHERWe have an email from Maria, who says, "What are the numbers of students who fail to complete their degrees? The idea that college is worth it, worth borrowing money, relies upon some assumptions. One that the student will complete a degree and, two, that an employer will hire a graduate and pay enough to manage the debt burden." David Bergeron, is that -- is she looking at it the right way?
BERGERONShe's looking in exactly the right way. So -- and a lot of people talk about the college graduation rates and the concerns that people have about the number -- of the share of students who graduate. But one of the things to keep in mind is that for a four-year public and four-year non-profit institutions, the graduation rates are in the mid 60s and above, generally. And it's the community colleges and other types of institutions where the graduation rates aren't nearly as high. They're in the 20s.
BERGERONBut, often, student who enroll in a community college are looking for short-term training. They're looking for certificates. They're not looking for the degree. They may come back to education later and look for that experience later, but in the meantime they're looking for shorter-term outcomes. And so you have to kind of balance the examination of graduation rates. The same with debt. The picture for debt is if you go to a four-year for-profit or a four-year nonprofit, you're going to take on a lot of debt. If you go to a public institution the debts are much more manageable.
FISHERLet's go to Ivan, in Washington. Ivan, you are on the air.
IVANHi, thanks a lot for taking my call.
IVANI was reading an article in U.S. News and World Report recently that said that the number of college graduates that are unemployed has gone up 50 percent in the last five years. And if you look at that number and then you look at the rate of recent college graduates, those post-students now that are under the age of 32, who are underemployed or in careers that were not related to their field of study, or that are minimum-wage paying, that number continues to rise.
IVANAnd so I'm wondering if, although the argument for college degree has been made and in previous in generations we see that it's necessary, if just our culture has shifted so much and our numbers aren't reflecting that, our studies, our data is lagging behind.
FISHERAnd as a corollary to Ivan's question, are there people who are choosing to go to college now because they can't get a job? In other words, are they using it as a kind of holding station for some years? Debra Humphreys?
HUMPHREYSYeah, the data on unemployment and underemployment is very tricky. And in some ways can be very misleading. There's an excellent blog post up on the "NewsHour" website right now by Anthony Carnevale that talks a little bit about this data that you often hear about unemployment being -- college graduates being unemployed or underemployed.
HUMPHREYSAnd his argument is that that data is pretty distorted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that suggests that some people, for instance, a person who graduates from college with a Bachelor of Science in nursing and is full-time employed as a nurse, that person's actually included in the underemployed number. Because you technically can be a nurse and have a licensed practitioner nursing certificate and not a B.A. So there's a lot of distortions in that data, which is not to say it's not a really tough economy right now.
HUMPHREYSIt is a tough economy. It's not -- the important thing to say though is that while unemployment rates have gone up for college graduates, they're still about half what they would be if you compare them to people who don't have a college degree. So it's something to be concerned about.
HUMPHREYSBut all the economic data that I read actually counterintuitively suggests that once we emerge from this recession we're actually going to have too few, not too many, college-educated people. By which I mean people who have both two-year degrees and four-year degrees, a full mix of people with different kinds of post-secondary certificates and degrees.
FISHERLet's hear from Daniel, in Falls Church. Daniel, you're on the air.
DANIELHowdy. Thank you for taking my call. My comment was about sort of anecdotally myself. I graduated in 2009. So I was part of the boomerang generation. And I was a political science major. And I left that and wound up going into the culinary field. And now, five years later, I'm actually -- I'm an entrepreneur, I own my own company and I hold investments in several others. I didn't -- I certainly wasn't a business major. I had no training in any of this. I ended up doing it practically.
DANIELAnd I keep finding more and more stories -- and this is anecdotal evidence, but then again, there hasn't really been comprehensive data collected on the subject -- where I see that a lot of people's investment in college really didn't amount to much more than sharpening their critical thinking abilities or more practical skills. And even then, going a step further, I feel a lot of people don't really use the investment in terms of -- at least on the undergraduate level -- in terms of determining what their overall career path.
DANIELSo I think, you know, earlier you mentioned the idea that people are going to be using college as a means of trying to decide whether people are going to have the careers that they want, not necessarily a high-paying job. I'm beginning to wonder if it's actually determinate for either. And it's something that I'm definitely going to have in the back of my mind when I raise my own kids and think about whether they need to be going college or a vocational school or following a different career path altogether.
FISHERAndrew Gillen, there is kind of a blowback in some quarters about this whole idea of considering the quality of college according to wage outcomes or whether people get jobs in their field of study. There was a census study that came out, I guess, earlier this year, that said that what employers are looking for is a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. And that they're not really looking for preparation in a particular field. So is there something to what the caller was saying about this disconnect between what you actually study in college and these sort of broader, larger skills?
GILLENYeah, I think there is. What's kind of interesting is that employers have always said they care about kind of these general skills. So whenever kind of anything would come up where a profession had low earnings or something like that, kind of the immediate comeback was, oh, well, we're preparing them for these -- with these broader skills that earnings aren't capturing, whether it be critical thinking or communication.
GILLENThere was a book a couple years ago called "Academically Adrift," which documented really poor performance by a lot of colleges on precisely those general skills. So it's becoming much harder to kind of excuse poor performance on one aspect by -- on, say, earnings, by pointing to these kind of general skills because we haven't seen very good evidence that the colleges are doing a great job on those either.
FISHERAnd, David -- so, David…
HUMPHREYSMarc, can I just jump in on that?
HUMPHREYSBecause that was -- the study you mentioned was the study that our association actually produced. And what the employers actually said in that was what you quoted, but what they also said was -- the vast majority of them said that what you need to be successful, over the long term, is a both-end picture. You need both, very high level broad skills, like communication and critical thinking and all those things. And you need some specific skills that can be applied in specific settings.
HUMPHREYSBut what the caller mentioned, I think, is actually not an argument against going to college, but it's an argument for the kind of college education that we're going to provide to students, which will give them that both-end picture, and will bring them all to a higher level. What his experience reflects is one that many, many more students are going to have, which is that they're going to have multiple jobs.
HUMPHREYSAnd what we found in another study that we just issued was that about 40 percent of people who have a college degree and are working full time are working in jobs that are completely unrelated to their undergraduate education. I'm one of those people. But that doesn't mean what I learned as an undergraduate isn't really important to have positioned me for the success I have now.
FISHERWhat was your undergraduate major?
HUMPHREYSMy undergraduate major was art history. And now I work with lots of statistics, I do lots of writing, I do lots of policy work. So -- and I think that reflects where a lot of people are going to end up, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't go to college. It means we have to think hard about what the college experience needs to be for students.
FISHERWe have a tweet from Elizabeth who, in answer to the question, what should college graduates know how to do, she says, "The art of a good thank you note, cocktail party conversation starters and how to program." So clearly, people want a lot of different things from college. And, David Bergeron, the study that Debra Humphreys was talking about was written about in the Wall Street Journal and they slapped the headline on it that said, "Would You Hire Socrates?" And so how do those kinds of qualities end up being reflected when you try to create a score card or a ratings system that is, I guess, per force, much more quantitative in its presentation?
BERGERONWell, whether it's a score card or a ratings system, by definition it's quantitative. And so a lot of -- you lose a lot of the qualitative nature of what goes on in American higher education. The thing that's interesting to me is the work that's going on in a number of institutions to try to parse this out. There's a -- in the "Chronicle of Higher Education," today there's a -- online -- there's a video clip of the president of Sarah Lawrence College in New York, which is a, you know, one of these very expensive liberal arts colleges that lots of us criticize.
BERGERONAnd -- but they have really taken to heart this goal of trying to understand what it is that they're -- they expect all of their students to have learned and understand how that connects them to the workforce. And do that in a way that allows them to monitor and assess the progress of their students over time. Whether it's that model or models that are being developed by others around, you know, this measurement holds some significant promise. But we're probably years away from having anything -- any data that would allow us to have those elements through a score card.
FISHERYou mentioned Sarah Lawrence as one of the most expensive schools in the country. There are now a number of schools that are charging $60,000 and up per year. Obviously, that is way beyond the capacity of most Americans. Andrew Gillen, tuition being way up even at public universities and total student loan debt is now over a trillion dollars. So there are a number of debates about how to address what amounts to crippling debt for many students. How -- is that debt driving all of these efforts to measure the value of college?
GILLENI think it's definitely contributing. In generations past, college was much more affordable. So there wasn't as much emphasis on, you know, what -- how much you were going to earn afterwards or even, you know, how important it was to graduate. Whereas, those are very, very important aspects now because it's such a big financial commitment for students and their families. And in terms of kind of what we can do about kind of growing student debt, I mean, ultimately it goes down either finding money to pay for college for these students, or convincing colleges to somehow cut costs. Because those are really only the two options we have.
FISHERJust yesterday Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill that would allow Americans, for the first time, to refinance student loans at lower interest rates. She cited the example of a 57-year-old divorced mother of two, went back to school for her bachelor's and master's degrees, borrowed $65,000 at 8 percent interest rates. It's now ballooned to $123,000 in debt. These are federal government loans, so they're clearly policy issues here for the federal government. Is Senator Warren's proposal the right path toward restoring some greater access, David Bergeron?
BERGERONCertainly, Senator Warren's proposal is very helpful. It addresses the needs of people who are in the labor market today who have tremendous amounts of student loan debt. And in a study that we did a year and a half or so ago at the Center, looked at this issue and concluded that if we lowered interest rates down to 5 percent -- her proposal's even lower -- we put $14 billion into the hands of current loan payers, student loan payers, that they could use for other things in the economy. And so it would stimulate the economy.
BERGERONSo what we think, that her bill is certainly a part of the answer, I think the other thing is to take steps to make sure that we don't grow that $1.2 trillion to an even larger number in the future by making college more affordable. I think Andrew is quite correct. While we need to have institutions step up and take steps to lower the cost of higher education, we need states to reinvest in higher education. This is one of the most significant problems that we face is the states have disinvested.
FISHERAnd how do you begin to make that happen given that states were under increased pressure with more and more cost being -- coming down on them from the federal government. You don't see a lot of political mood for massive investment in higher education.
BERGERONWell, one of the things that was interesting during the economic downturn where some states that bet against the trend said, you know, we know that in the future our economic vitality is dependent on the quality of our workforce and therefore we're going to bet -- invest more money in public higher education. And I think that that's what states need to do. We proposed and President Obama has proposed a new program to encourage states to reinvest in higher education, which is just rewarding them for doing what they should be doing, I think.
FISHERThat sort of takes us back to the original question, though, because in the states that are choosing to go in that direction -- Virginia, for example, where former Governor Bob McDonnell did invest in the University of Virginia and the rest of that system. But he did so in a very targeted way, very much oriented toward this purported connection between what you study and what you end up doing as a career. It was very career-oriented. Is that sort of the only available political way forward?
GILLENNo. Connecticut invested $1 billion in the University of Connecticut to get them to improve their graduation rate. They really didn't care what people were majoring in, they just wanted more students to graduate. In 2005, their on-time graduation rate was 47 percent. 2011, it was up to 64 percent. They went from number 100 in the country to number 10 in that very short period of time because there was political will within the state to improve the outcome for their students. And so I think there are a couple of ways for it. Virginia is one, certainly Connecticut is another.
FISHERWhen we come back after a short break, more of your calls about the value of a college education. Questions about graduation rates, the importance of technical schools versus four-year colleges. That's all coming up. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post. We'll be right back.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about the value of college. You can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. And let's go right to your calls. Here is John in Baltimore. John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi, thanks for taking my call.
JOHNLet me start up my first statement. I am a director of a technical program at a community college. And there's been -- one of your guests talk about the, I think, the -- what seem to be the over-emphasis on graduation rates. And I guess, you know, it's probably best to aim higher, right, in life. But the reality is that not everybody that wants to go to college is going to go there to get a degree or even a certificate, quite frankly.
JOHNThere are students in my program, for example, that, you know, they'll come and they'll take one class and they'll get a job offer. And my advice frequently is, you know what, we'll always be here for you. Take that job, get started and, you know, we'll help you move along. Colleges have to fulfill this strange need, I think, in that college is expected to be all things to all people. We want it to be a place where people can go, you know, find themselves personally and spiritually or learn to be a highly skilled, highly knowledgeable engineer.
JOHNBut, you know, we also want it to be a place where a single mother of two can go job skills training or an immigrant can get English language skill. So I think it's unfair to hold up this one model, say, graduation rates, for example, and expect all different colleges that, you know, do very different things and serve very different needs and yet we're trying to hold everybody up to this one standard. That's a problem in my program.
JOHNI have to constantly justify the fact that most of my students don't technically graduate. But a success, you know, the students idea of success is sometimes not the same as the colleges or the stage or, you know, the sort of, you know, the general perspective idea.
FISHEROkay. David Bergeron from the Center for American Progress.
BERGERONI think that's a really valid and significant point. When I've written on this topic since I joined the center, we often write about it from the perspective of saying, you know, you want to judge institutions on multiple outcomes. So you're talking about having a labor market outcome in advance of the degree. And it's a perfectly valid set of outcomes to have. It's just that we get concerned when there's no outcome at all.
BERGERONThe institution's not affordable, it doesn't provide access, it doesn't have good labor market outcomes and students don't graduate. Then we have to begin to question the quality of that institution.
FISHERWe have an email from Yaniv (sp?) who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland. He says, he'd like "to point out another aspect that most people miss. The purpose of four-year universities is to produce research. Professors are hired for their ability to advance a field and not for their teaching abilities. Professors, for the most part, are actually poor teachers and it's graduate students who help the undergraduates with their understanding."
FISHER"The reason to go to a four-year research university is to gain research experience that you can put on your resume." Does anyone remotely agree with that? Debra Humphreys.
HUMPHREYSOh, wow. It depends on -- like with the caller and like with all of the things that we've been talking about, it depends on the college you go to. There are some colleges that probably are not focusing enough on the teaching and learning process. But I will say...
FISHERBut this argument say they shouldn't.
HUMPHREYSWell, right. And I -- you'd be hard pressed to find actually I think a college that wouldn't that even though they have a research mission for the big research universities that they don't also have a significant obligation to their undergraduate students to provide them a good education. And part of that is actually getting undergraduate students involved in research as well. Research is something that is an excellent preparation for good critical thinking skills and a lot of other things.
HUMPHREYSWhat I would say, however, is that this is one of those things that is more difficult for a student and a parent to judge in terms of a college, but is incredibly important. Whether you have -- go to a college and are able to have a good experience with faculty members who get to know you, where you can get engaged with their work and they get engaged with you is incredibly important to your long-term success and your ability to graduate and to get all the outcomes that we've been talking about. And that is something that -- it is perfectly legitimate to ask that question and to try hard to figure out which colleges are doing that better.
FISHERI've not heard many people argue that it's the graduate students who are the better teachers than their professors but...
HUMPHREYSSometimes they are.
HUMPHREYSSometimes they are.
FISHERLet's hear from Suzanne in Arlington. You're on the air.
SUZANNEHi, thank you for taking my call.
SUZANNEYou know, I have a child who struggles with school. She's in eighth grade and my only thought is, you know, how do I as a parent and an educated parent, one who went to college and to law school and who now does something totally different than the law, of course, but it gave the critical thinking I need to succeed. What do I say to her when she says, oh, mom, I think I want to go to UBA?
SUZANNEAnd I tell her, you know, there's a college for everyone and we'll find the right college for you. But how do I, as a parent, measure whether a university or college is going to provide the critical thinking my child to allow her to be successful 10 years out from school, not the year after school is over. But that's the real measure. When they're 30 and 35, are they starting to enter or solidify careers that will allow them to provide for their family.
BERGERONYeah, I mean, that's a really tough question because, you know, it is very hard for us to even envision what the world will be like when our kids are 30 years old. My daughter is 22 and I have a hard time envisioning what the world she will be working in when she's 30 just because of the pace of change. And so we have to rely on the real strong history of institutions, preparing students for life.
BERGERONAnd if your, I think you said it was a daughter is interested in a particular area of study, she should really emphasize that and understand that that's important to her and then look for institutions that will support her in that learning because she'll be able to do the research that will help her build the skill set. And then ultimately, it will be important for you to look at what are the earnings and outcomes for graduates in the particular field.
BERGERONBecause I think by the time your daughter is going off to college, it won't just be a rating system that looks at institution. There'll be one that looks at the particular programs at institutions.
HUMPHREYSThe only think that I would add to that is, of course, we don't know exactly what the labor market is going to be like when your daughter is 30 years old. But we actually do have some evidence from current employers and from educational research about what really works, what kinds of practices will get students to those broad and specific skills and knowledge that will set you up for success.
HUMPHREYSAnd really a lot of it comes down to engaged work and an engaged learning environment where your student is going -- your child is going to go in an environment where they're going to be challenged, where they're going to be asked to do a lot of writing and research, where they're going to be given opportunities to actually go out into the community and do work with people who are different from themselves.
HUMPHREYSThose are the things that actually employers say they really want students to do and I think would actually set you up for something that you're quite right is going to change over time. You have to ask a lot of tough questions when you're looking at colleges and universities. And it has to be more than just graduation rates and earnings. But what is the environment, the learning environment that they're creating for students?
FISHERAndrew Gillen, we have a tweet from Tamarcus (sp?) asking -- he's saying that we'd not paid enough attention in this hour to why college has become so expensive. What are the reasons?
GILLENSo there's a big, big debate about what exactly is driving college up -- the cost of college up. Some people argue that it's declines in basically state funding. Some people argue that it's increases in administrative bloat. And basically the researchers just kind of sorting these things out. There's enough plausibility to a bunch of different theories right now that it's really hard to tell, you know, which one is going to essentially explain what we've witnessed in the past.
GILLENThe one I'm leaning towards at the moment is called Bowen's Revenue Theory of Costs. And it's basically a behavioral explanation that says we basically reward colleges for spending more money, because if they have more money, they can recruit, you know, prized faculty, recruit better students, have better labs. You know, all the nice things that...
FISHERIt's kind of a keeping up with the Jones; argument.
GILLENExactly. Yeah, an academic arms race. And in order to that, pretty much any revenue source is going to see immense pressure, whether that be tuition, low entry situation, whether it's seeking more state funding or even whether it's commercializing research. And you see kind of movement in all of those directions.
FISHERIt's William Bowen the former Princeton president?
GILLENSo this is Howard R. Bowen.
FISHEROh, a different Bowen, okay.
GILLENYeah. A different Bowen, yeah.
FISHERSo, Debra Humphreys, we have an email from Beth in Annapolis, MD. She says, "We are very upset to see our daughter who graduated in 2010 in art history and couldn't get a job. She went to graduate school in exhibition design. Now she's $60,000 in debt. She worked as a bartender for two years and finally got a job in furniture restoration fulltime and can't pay her bills. She's struggling and going into greater debt."
FISHER"We're helping her but feel we've been duped by telling her to follow her heart and go into an art field because she has talent. Now she's taking on a second job with a masters degree."
HUMPHREYSYeah, that's a tough story. And as someone who also has an undergraduate degree in art history, I'm very sympathetic. All I can say is that to hang in there because what we found, we did another study about sort of the long-term employment prospects for people, and especially people who major in liberal arts fields, humanities and social science fields.
HUMPHREYSAnd it takes a bit longer for those graduates to get settled in a career and it may not ultimately be the career they thought they were going to be in. But we did find that over time their employment prospects were pretty good and they compared reasonably well to people who majored in, say, professional fields. They did not compare as well to those who majored in science or engineering.
HUMPHREYSBut it was not as bleak a picture paint. Now in terms of your specific situation, all I can say is that the skill, to the extent that your daughter can continue to build her portfolio of skills, building on the work that she did in college but also the experiences that she's getting, all the different work experiences, I wouldn't discount those underemployed work experiences. We talk to employers all the time and they say, I want people who can work hard and who are willing to work hard.
HUMPHREYSAnd so, even if you've done a job that sort of feels like it's not using all your talents, it's important to building the portfolio that will eventually get you that better job.
FISHERLet's hear from Sam in Fairfax. Sam, you're on the air. Sam?
SAMHi. I really appreciate the show and the topic today. Many of comments that have been called in I have agreed with. I think there are some basic assumptions, value assumptions in this conversation that I don't agree with, like that to be successful a child has to know a certain amount to make a certain amount of money or be in a certain career.
SAMI'm a big proponent of college, but I think the things that I got most out of college were knowing myself, socializing, learning how to critically think. Those are things that help me in my day to day life as much if not more than they help me in my career.
GILLENYeah, I mean, that's a great point. And ultimately what is defined as a college success is really defined by the student themselves. So the reason we're spending so much time talking about things like graduation rates and earnings are because those are one of the few outcomes that we have measurements of. And graduation rates are not a particularly great outcomes measure.
GILLENBut right now, it's the only one we have. So there's a lot of excitement over the fact that we're probably going to see earnings outcome soon. And that will relieve a lot of the pressure when you only have one outcome measure, because you -- if you aren't doing well in that one outcome measure, you could be doing well on, you know, every other outcome measure. And as we get more and more outcome measures, we're likely to see that.
FISHERAnd that goes along with a tweet we have from @ajw saying, "The most important thing I learned in college was how to learn." He's now with a Web developer with a foreign affairs degree. That's all we have time for. Thanks very much to our pals. Andrew Gillen, senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research here in the District. Debra Humphreys is vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
FISHERAnd David Bergeron is vice president for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks so much for listening.
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