Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is a College Degree Worth it? The Wrong Debate Continues

There are two dominant views concerning the value of a college degree currently circulating in American culture.  One view is that on average, people with college degrees make much more money over their lifetime than people without degrees.  The other view is that the over-production of college degrees has deflated their value, and we now have taxi drivers and baristas with PhDs.  I have often presented a third view, which is that a value of a college degree should not be equated with future earning power or job prospects, and instead of seeing higher education as a private good, we must see it as a public good.

The first problem with the idea that a college degree means higher earnings is that this correlation can have multiple causes.  We know that on average, students with wealthy parents and more social connections to high-paying jobs graduate from college at a higher rate.  Likewise, SAT scores are highly correlated with the wealth of the parents, and college rankings are highly correlated with SAT scores, and even financial aid is now often linked to SAT scores. The system as a whole thus reinforces class privilege, and so it may be that people who attain college degrees earn more because they start off with more and are given more opportunities and advantages as they move through the education and job systems. 

On the other side of the coin, the over-production of college degrees can be directly related to the under-supply of good jobs.  What we are seeing in many different job markets is that due to the lack of unionization, the increase in automation, and the globalization of labor and consumption, employers are able to depress wages and benefits.  One interesting test case for this theory is in higher education itself where we have witnessed a significant decrease in “good” jobs.  In just a few decades, we have moved from a system where the majority of the teachers had full-time, tenure-track positions to a situation where the majority of the faculty have part-time, non-tenure-track positions.  During this period, enrollments have increased, so we cannot say that there is a decrease in the demand for people with PhDs.  Instead, universities and colleges have decided to de-professionalize the professoriate.  As I have pointed out before, one cause for this problem is that the same institutions that produce the PhD degree do not require a PhD to teach undergraduate students. 

In other fields, this casualization of the labor force has been pushed by the use of technology to reduce compensation.  Due to the Web and the new media economy, professionals in journalism, entertainment, and other services have been replaced by citizens who are willing to work for little or nothing.  This reduction in earnings was once countered by the recognition that workers in a domestic economy must be paid enough to participate in the local consumer economy, but now in a globalized economy, there is always another person willing to consume our products.

What this analysis tells us is that we cannot expect higher education to fix our employment problems since so many of the labor issues are derived from the power of employers to reduce the compensation and benefits of their workers.  Just as the current funding model of higher education is rigged to reinforce class inequality, our failure to protect workers from destructive labor practices functions to enhance economic stratification.  When we throw high student debt into this mix, we see that our entire economic and social system is programmed against the future.    What we need is better labor laws and better employers.  Once all of the income gains stop going to the top 1%, we will see more good jobs, but education alone cannot fix this issue.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Quality of Education Problem

In my book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, I argue that universities and colleges can only reduce costs and improve quality if they concentrate on their core missions of instruction and pure research.  When schools fail to focus on these basic activities, they end up spending enormous funds on side projects; in other words, when quality education is not the main priority, there is no way to contain costs.  However, the problem remains of how do you define and monitor educational quality?

This question of educational quality became a topic of debate at a recent meeting at Governor Brown’s office.  The objective of this stakeholder’s meeting was to discuss how best to implement Assembly Bill 94, which calls for the UC and CSU to report on the following performance measures:  the four-year graduate rate, the six-year graduation rate, the two-year transfer graduation rate, the number of low-income students, the number of transfer students from community colleges  enrolled, the number of degree completions in the STEM disciplines, the number of course credits accumulated by undergrad students at time of graduation, and the total amount of funds received per undergraduate degree.

At this meeting, I argued that while I applaud the governor’s focus on the state’s university systems, his metrics will be counter-productive if the quality of education is not protected.  For example, to increase graduation rates, the UC can simply increase the size of classes, inflate the credits given to particular classes, and offer more credit for non-UC classes.  Although I do not think we should push for standardized tests to see what students are actually learning in their classes, I do think the state can motivate universities to focus their attention on undergraduate instruction by reporting on the following: percentage of the core budget spent on direct instructional activities, student credit hours generated in courses of less than 26 students, and student credit hours generated in courses taught by full-time faculty (whether tenure-track or not). The universities should also report on the increased costs related to administration on each campus. 

Like President Obama’s recent push for more accountability measures in higher education, the state’s focus on inputs and outputs does not look at what actually happens in the classroom.  What I propose in my book is that higher ed institutions need to monitor the quality of education by using the model of assessment that is presented in the UC lecturer’s contract.  All higher ed teachers should be able to demonstrate that they can communicate their course material in an effective manner, that they have a clear and effective method for assessing student learning, and that they are current in their field. The idea here is not to dismiss the important role of research, but rather, to tie research to teaching and to make sure that minimal standards for instruction are met.