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More on Education

September 27th, 2010 No comments

I’m a documented skeptic about education and hiring, and the release of the College Board’s College Completion Agenda 2010 report added further color to the debate.  Its headline finding is that the US ranks 12th of 36 developed countries in the percent of 25 to 34 year olds that have a college degree.

The New York Times’ reporting on this finding typifies the hand-wringing that has ensued.  I agree that the following statistics are a concern:

While almost 70 percent of high school graduates in the United States enroll in college within two years of graduating, only about 57 percent of students who enroll in a bachelor’s degree program graduate within six years, and fewer than 25 percent of students who begin at a community college graduate with an associate’s degree within three years.

Something is clearly not working, and I agree with the various experts cited in the article that we need to do something about it.

However, this overlooks an important nuance to America’s challenges with the numbers of graduates we’re producing: as a system, we don’t have any way of ensuring students are enrolling programs in match the needs of market.  This point is well articulated in this article by Ilana Garon, and nicely captured here:

Statistics like those put out by the College Board are misleading: they promote a foolish sense of tunnel vision, leading students to believe that the only possible way of obtaining even a middle-wage job is through the traditional, four-year college route. Reliance on the standard liberal arts degree as a benchmark for competence belies not only the fact that many jobs simply don’t require such an education, but also that middle-wage jobs are going unfilled due to a lack of applicants with the necessary specialized skills.

The reason Garon’s article stood out for me is that it highlights two reasons why the conventional wisdom that degrees are inherently good is dangerous.  First, it’s a misallocation of resources: students spend time and money on degrees that don’t give them a positive return.  Second, as our system evolves away from career and technical education programs, our business and industrial base suffers from talent shortages.

Again, no earthshattering conclusions.  Just that it’s important that we look at the utility of a particular degree, rather than a woolly notion of its benefits.

Education Matters

August 11th, 2010 2 comments

I’ve been struck with a case of writer’s block for some reason or another.  It may be because I decided I needed to write the hell out of this article since it left such a strong impression on me, but for whatever reason I haven’t found the right inspiration.

So a breakdown of our current unemployment by the BLS, nicely represented graphically by Matt Yglesias, nicely crystallized a few loose thoughts I had on the subject of education. Yglesias’ simple bar graph of the differences in unemployment is striking – the Great Recession is so different for people with degrees than it is for those without.

My personal experience drives this home for me (as stories about ourselves often do).  I was laid off from a great job last year, and experienced a bit of the anxiety and uncertainty of being unemployed. But I can’t claim much kinship with the long term unemployed, because I was unemployed for almost exactly 6 weeks. Good luck explains a lot of that, but I also have a bachelor’s degree, and work in the services sector. Exactly the kind of person that our new economy favors.

I struggle with the common idea that a degree has intrinsic value beyond the knowledge it should represent. A finance director I used to work with summed it up nicely when he said (roughly) “completing a degree shows drive and commitment, which are important attributes for a financial analyst.”  He then dismissed a candidate who had the right experience, interviewed well, and for whom the only reservations were the lack of a degree, and an apparent lack of interest in completing one.

I won’t argue with that sentiment because I agree that spending 2, 4, or more years completing a degree takes drive and commitment. But I don’t think the converse is true, that those without degrees are lacking these things. Using degrees as a proxy for these and other intangibles is lazy, and has uncomfortable implications around race and achievement.

Of course this is a complex issue, and I don’t have any real answers.  But I think it’s important that recruiters and HR folks think long and hard about what we’re actually trying to get from educational requirements.  They’re a blunt instrument at best.

Update (8/17): a friend who’s looking for work just had an interview cancelled because she doesn’t have a BA. She’s been working on completing it while working full time, so I’d submit that it shows she’s extra committed. She’s been working in accounting and finance for 10 years. Does the fact that this company noticed her BA is pending change anything about the relevance of her experience? Nope.