Saturday, March 3, 2012

Another Cheer for American Education

A hundred years ago, an eighth-grade education was sufficient.  In 1910 only 5% of Americans entered high school.  Then, the “high school movement” began.  The fact that now 30% of Americans have earned post-secondary degrees (associate's and above) promises a renaissance in the coming generation.

 America invested millions of dollars (equivalent to billions today) in the construction of high schools, supported by taxes.  In addition to “operating levies” those property taxes stood behind the bonds that were sold to investors.  America took on a tremendous public debt.  Despite the Depression of the ‘30s and war of the 40s, by the 1950s, the high school education was a ticket to success in the job market.  More importantly, the general education level of the nation was raised.  Did it make a difference?  Daily newspapers still ran (and still run) horoscopes.  But they also ran crossword puzzles on the same page.  The general education level had been raised. 

Now, our high school students lag behind those of 20 other industrialized (informatized) nations.  But my test is this: What can you count on one hand?  Nokia did not come from the high math scores of Finland's gymnasium students.  What other companies are there in Finland?  Where is the economic growth in the Czech Republic? They are doing well, certainly but invention, innovation and enterprise are different from that.  Risks entail losses.  The Japanese are risk-averse.  How many Nobel Prize winners are in Japan?  Then we have to consider the people who never finished college, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Of course, if Edison had Tesla's (incomplete) university education, he would have had the mathematics to get past direct current.  There are no easy answers, but overall, nothing bad can come from mass education.  A hundred years ago, we massively educated ourselves to the high school level. It worked out well enough. 
John D. Rockefeller’s family lived in Strongsville and he rented a room in a boarding house in Cleveland in order to attend Central High School 1853-1855.  He then enrolled in a ten-week course at Folsom's Commercial College to learn bookkeeping.  At sixteen,  he went to work for 50 cents a day.  He was 30 when he organized Standard Oil of Ohio. 
Master of Arts, Social Science, April 23, 2010
American high school students often need remedial mathematics classes in college -- but they take them.  That is the point.  In France, class content at university is less important than the "narrative" your education carries in the corporate and government bureaucracies.  In Japan, getting in to college is the important thing because the university you attend pre-determines the corporation you will work for.  They have a lot of C+ college students in Japan.  So do we.  The difference is that our society encourages individual choice.  Few others do.  So, their best and brightest come here for their university educations.  

The subject of useless college majors was extensively explored on OrgTheory a blog by professors of sociology.

  “I like ‘useless college majors,’ but debt undermines the humanities and other fields (like sociology!). People will rightfully resent education and the labor market. That’s what I’m worried about. When we make education into a high priced job placement test, it undermines the liberal arts. We need to stop that from happening further.” – Fabio Rojas on “Police Beat Unarmed Poet” here.  

 As long as dance education is inexpensive, that’s not such a big deal. If people want to pursue the dream, that’s great. But huge college debt makes that choice hard to sustain.” – Fabio Rojas on “Dance Majors” here.

 Colleges are filled with people who are there because they think it will lead to jobs. So, then, why are job hungry students flooding non-vocational areas? The explanation is fairly simple.  ”Good” jobs require college degrees as a test of ability and emotional maturity (being able to sit and do work), even if the job itself requires no college level skills.  – Fabio Rojas on Useless College Majors here.

Another possibility is that the Department of Education statistics show humanities BAs have been a fairly stable percentage of degrees since 1971 (decline to mid-80s, more or less a slow rise since then) while there’s been a huge rise in business (peak in the late 80s, but still much higher than 1971) and “other” (which appears to include mostly professional/vocational degrees, and is at its highest point). Also, pre-law and pre-ed people often major in the humanities. It’s almost like those subjects have some use for them. – Andrew in reply
Per Andrew, above, the big jump since 1971 for BA degrees (other than business) has been in what NCES treats as a residual category:
"Includes Agrciculture and natural resources:
  • Architecture and related services;
  • Communication, journalism, and related programs;
  • Communications technologies; Family and consumer sciences/human sciences;
  • Health professions and related clinical sciences;
  • Legal professions and studies;
  • Library science;
  • Military technologies;
  • Parks, recreation, leisure, and fitness studies;
  • Precision production;
  • Public administration and social services;
  • Security and protective services;
  • Transportation and materials moving; and
  • Not classified by field of study.  
Without doing a lot of digging, the biggies appear to be Health and Communications.  The latter is a major that seems murky to me. I believe most institutions treat it as part of liberal arts; it would be interesting to know something about career outcomes.  I any event, both of these are overwhelmingly female dominated, matching the change in undergraduate demographics over recent decades.    Eweininger in reply.

I am not an enemy of humanities but I believe that higher education must be carefully managed. It’s not a problem if *some* people major in fields with poor job prospects. After all, novelists, artists, and other creative types improve the world in important ways. We should have institutions that support the arts. But it’s a big deal when when *lots* of people major in areas with poor job prospects. These people take out massive loans for skills they will never use.Fabio Rojas on Useless College Majors here.

I think we overemphasize the importance of the kind of bachelor’s degree you get. Yes, type of undergrad degree helps you acquire job skills but isn’t a bachelor’s increasingly being used as a stepping stone for a graduate degree? I’m amazed by how many of the MBA students we teach have their undergrad degrees in “soft” majors, and yet they’re still able to get into a top business school. I think the mistake that Fabio is making in interpreting these numbers is assuming that these are terminal degrees and/or that future employers even care that much about what undergrad degree you have. – Brayden King in reply

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