Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

About those Student Loan Default Rates…

The distinction of having the highest student-loan default rate of any higher-education institution in Virginia goes to Everest College in Chesapeake. The default rate at the for-profit college (now doing business as Altierus Career College), which prepares students to be dental assistants, HVAC technicians and the like, is 36%, reports WVTF Radio IQ.

In absolute numbers, non-profit Liberty University took the top spot. A 10% default rate translated into 2,903 students.

The highest default rates tend to be small, for-profit vocational schools. Although the Radio IQ data doesn’t show it, some public colleges have a fairly high default rate as well. Low-income students are disproportionately likely to drop out of college — whatever the institution — and find themselves unable (or unwillling) to repay their loans.

Many progressives purport to be concerned about minorities and the high default rate blame for-profit colleges. The Radio IQ article quotes Diane Standaert with the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) as noting that many for-profits are converting into non-profits to avoid state and federal regulations aimed at curbing “abusive practices.”

Acccording to CRL’s Virginia state profile, for-profit colleges disproportionately harm: low-income families, communities of color, and women.” Undergraduate enrollment at for-profits is 54% low-income, 45.4% African-American, and 60.9% female. Students at for-profit institutions in Virginia are less likely to graduate, more likely to take out student loans and graduate more indebted, and are more likely to default on their college debt, according to CRL.

What this analysis ignores is that there is considerable variability in the default rate for for-profit, private non-profit, and public non-profit institutions. The best for-profit institutions have lower default rates than the worst non-profits. Public institutions such as Norfolk State and Virginia Union University that cater to lower-income African-Americans have default rates comparable to many for-profits. Conversely, the for-profits cater to adult African-Americans — look at their television ads if you doubt me — who didn’t get a chance to attend college immediately after high school but, as adults, would like to advance their career and obtain a better job.

If mean ol’ fiscal conservatives wanted to shut down for-profit institutions with high default rates on the grounds that they were costing taxpayers, some progressive group would describe the disproportionate impact on upwardly striving African-Americans as racist. But the impetus for shutting down for-profits isn’t coming from the Right. It’s coming from the Left, hostile as always to the idea of someone somewhere making a profit.

The real problem isn’t whether an institution is for-profit or non-profit, it’s the fact that the federal government hands out student loans indiscriminately. Federal loans are not granted on the basis of a student’s likelihood to repay, whether based on SAT scores, class standing, credit score, years in the workforce or any other relevant factor. Why? Because objective lending criteria might impact minorities more than whites, which would constitute a different type of discrimination and invoke the inevitable cries of racism.

So, if you think with a leftist mindset, instead of insisting that the federal government establish standards to reduce the number of students defaulting on their debt, which would be racist, you attack for-profit institutions… even thought, by leftist standards, limiting educational opportunities for minorities by this indirect means also could be construed as racist. But if you think with a leftist mindset, that’s OK because you’re suspicious of for-profit enterprises anyway. Furthermore, you control the commanding heights that shape public opinion formulation — the media, academia, the educational bureaucracy — so you have the power to frame the issue the way you want.

That, folks, is democracy at work in America today.

Alternatives to Traditional Colleges Are Spreading

Image source: Wall Street Journal

Last year Aidan Cary, a bright high school student in Hampton, applied to the University of Virginia and other prestigious universities in the Northeast. But he ended up attending a nearly unknown institution, MissionU, for a very different kind of educational experience.

At MissionU, based in San Francisco, he is enrolled in a one-year, data-science program. He studies between 40 and 50 hours per week and visits high-tech companies in the Bay area as part of the educational experience. And he pays nothing up front. Instead he will repay MissionU with 15% of his salary for three years once he lands a job paying $50,000 or more.

As the Wall Street Journal writes, MissionU is part of a broader movement toward an alternate model of higher education:

A new breed of longer programs such as MissionU has begun to pop up. In California the Holberton School and the “42” program recently opened, and in Indianapolis the Kenzie Academy has begun its second class. While they remain focused on digital skills, they also add a smattering of general education courses—in areas like problem solving and teamwork—and market themselves as college alternatives.

“The degree is dead. You need experience,” says the website for Praxis, a five-year-old digital school based in South Carolina.

These new-breed institutions represent a new challenge for traditional four-year institutions of higher education. Unlike private career schools, MissionU, Praxis, and the Kenzie Academy aren’t targeting an adult population seeking workforce degrees and certifications — they’re targeting youngsters like Cary who would have gone straight from high school to college.

The value proposition is huge: You invest only one year of your life studying before you enter the workforce. The year of intensive study costs as little as $22,500 spread over three years, and only if you make a job paying $50,000 or more. If the program costs you more, it’s only because you’re making more. Plus, the colleges practically guarantee you a job at the end of the line. Cary figures he will come out $250,000 ahead compared to the traditional route.

And what do students lose compared to the traditional four-year, residential college experience? Well, they’re actually expected to work 40 to 50 hours a week, which may preclude a fair amount of partying and goofing off.

They also don’t get an accredited degree. But sheepskins are mainly valuable for signalling to the job market that someone is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to endure the four-year degree-earning process. Instead, Cary will earn a skill in great demand that will land him a job in a technology company, most likely in the Bay area. Once he enters the workplace, the sheepskin credential becomes superfluous — from then on, he’ll be judged by his job performance.

He’ll lose one more thing. While alternative colleges can teach a person how to work, they don’t teach their students why they are working, the Journal quotes Gardner Campbell, an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University as saying. Without that context, he says, graduates of MissionU-like programs run the risk of becoming well-paid drones.

Ah, poor Mr. Cary will miss the value provided by the vaunted liberal arts curriculum. He can console himself that most graduates forget the vast majority of what they studied within a few years. Also, if Cary’s parents are like many others who find traditional universities to be teaching not the “liberal” arts but the “politically correct” arts, they may be perfectly happy to spare their child a learning experience increasingly resembling an indoctrination camp than an institution encouraging wide-ranging exploration of thought.

Can these alternative institutions be replicated, or do they cater to a narrow slice of elite students? After all MissionU is highly selective — its acceptance rate is in the single digits, comparable to an Ivy League school. Cary scored in the top 5% of the country on his SAT and graduated in the top 10% of his high school class. 

As long as critical skills are going begging in the workplace, I see no reason why these “alternative colleges” can’t proliferate. They offer a fantastic value proposition compared to the four-year college. The only real barrier is the brain-dead preference of H.R. offices for the credential of a four-year degree. But I expect that employers’ desperation to hire employees with critical job skills will overcome that prejudice.

Traditional higher-ed institutions don’t comprehend the degree of animosity they have engendered in the marketplace. First, they have made college nearly unaffordable for the middle class. Second, they have created learning and cultural environments that are ideologically hostile to roughly half the population. Their value proposition has become “Give us your children so we can indoctrinate them with alien values, and by the way, give us all your money.”

That’s not a viable long-term business model.

How UVa Compares to Other Flagship Universities in Out-of-State Enrollment

There’s a special burden upon state flagship universities to acquit themselves well in the national rankings — the university reflects upon the state as a whole. Thus, the high esteem in which Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia, among others, are held casts a warm glow upon California, Virginia, and Michigan.

The ranking methodology for the U.S. News & World-Report “Best Colleges in America” puts a premium on average SAT scores. Enlarging the pool of out-of-state students enables an institution to recruit more high-SAT students. As a bonus, out-of-state students pay higher tuition than in-state students. But filling up the student body with out-of-staters conflicts with the mission of public institutions to serve the population of the state supporting them with taxpayer dollars. What’s a university president to do?

The Washington Post took at look at the flagship institutions of the 50 states to see what percentage of out-of-state students they admitted. At the bottom, the University of Vermont admitted only 21% of its students from within the state in the fall of 2016. At the opposite extreme, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks admitted 89% in-staters.

Of course, here at Bacon’s Rebellion, we’re most interested in the University of Virginia. UVa admitted 66% in-state students, an increase of 3 percentage points from the previous year. That was a middle-of-the-pack performance compared to other flagships.

For purposes of comparison, only 51% of University of Michigan students were native Michiganders. On the other hand, Berkeley managed to maintain its high ranking with 76% in-staters, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with 83%.

Conversely, one can look at a flagship’s ability to recruit out-of-state students as a positive. Talent comes from all around the country, all around the globe, and many of the 34% of out-of-staters recruited by UVa end up staying here in Virginia. Looking at the percentage from an economic development perspective, this might be the number we’d like to see grow.

(Hat tip: Peter Blake)

Fear and Loathing in the Era of Weaponized PC

John Accordino

I don’t know John Accordino especially well, but we’re more than casual acquaintances. He and I had lunch a couple of times to discuss a partnership between Bacon’s Rebellion and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis, which he headed at the time. He struck me as friendly and collegial. He was assiduous about consulting his colleagues before committing to an agreement with me. He never gave any sign of temper, prejudice, profanity, or any other off-putting trait.

So I was startled to read a couple of weeks ago that former Governor L. Douglas Wilder, a professor at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, had sued Accordino, who by then had become dean of the school.

L. Douglas Wilder

Wilder’s lawsuit alleges that Accordino violated university rules when he verbally assaulted and abused Wilder’s administrative assistant, Angelica Bega. He allegedly called her “obscene names, accused her of violating VCU human resources rules, questioned and insulted her intelligence, threatened her employment with VCU, and generally disparated her humanity.”

His abuse “was such that others within the department, throughout the building, heard his harangue.” Although Wilder did not personally witness the incident, Associate Professor Dr. Kristine Artello allegedly informed him that she heard the event through her closed office door and volunteered to provide a written account of Accordino’s alleged abuse. 

I suppose it’s possible that Accordino presented one face to the public and an entirely different visage to his subordinates, and I acknowledge that my interactions with him were too limited to reveal the inner nature of the man. Furthermore, I have never met Ms. Bega and have no basis upon which to comment upon her credibility. But given the toxic environment in higher education and the #metoo movement today, I’m not willing yet to start casting stones at Accordino.

Angelica Bega

Apparently, VCU President Michael Rao and Provost Gail Hackett had their own issues with the accusations against Accordino, for Wilder sued them, too. He alleged that Hackett did not fairly process Bega’s complaint. After an unsatisfactory meeting with Hackett and Rao, Wilder then went to VCU’s H.R. department, portraying the incident “as sexual harassment and racial and sexual discrimination.” The university, he charged, failed to protect Bega from Accordino’s abusive behavior. Despite Wilder’s insistent personal appeals, Rao refused to discipline the dean.

That was then. This Wednesday, VCU removed Accordino as dean of the school of government, striking an agreement to supplement his $220,000 salary with $80,000 in supplemental pay over the next three years. After spending the next year and a half on paid “study-research leave,” he will return to teach as a tenured faculty member in the fall of 2019.

Gail Hackett

Meanwhile, Accordino has filed a counter-suit against Wilder, accusing him of defamation and interfering with his VCU contract. He is seeking $150,000 in damages, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In the filing, Accordino accuses Hackett and Rao of privately supporting him but acting to remove him anyway out of fear of Wilder. … “Hackett told Accordino that she had no cause to reassign him, but due to her certainty that Wilder would go after Accordino with a vengeance, she strongly encouraged Accordino to ‘step down as dean,’ the countersuit alleges.”

Hackett allegedly told Accordino that he and VCU “would not win in a fight against Wilder.” Further, she implied that VCU refused to confront Wilder’s “disruptive, disrespectful and bullying behavior” because of “a fear that Wilder would make up unfounded and false claims of racism and discrimination.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Judging from the T-D‘s coverage, Accordino did not dispute in his counter-suit that an incident occurred. I’m speculating here, but it’s not hard to imagine that Accordino did confront Bega over violating VCU H.R. rules — taking too much time off, perhaps? — and that voices rose and tempers flared. It’s also not hard to imagine that Accordino and Bega had markedly different recollections of what happened. Finally, it’s not hard to imagine that Accordino construed his behavior as a justified chastisement of an employee for failing to follow policy, while Bega felt emotionally abused. Did he throw a temper tantrum? Or was she being a snowflake? At this point the public has no way of knowing.

We do know that VCU authorities initially sided with Accordino. Was that because his side of the story was so believable? Or because Hackett and Rao sided with him because he was “one of them,” a member of the university’s inner sanctum?

It also seems clear that Wilder immediately embraced Bega’s version of events, and he went after Accordino like a bulldog. He put the VCU brass in an untenable situation. Wilder wasn’t just any ol’ adjunct professor. He was Virginia’s first black governor, and the school of government was named in his honor. He also had the reputation of never backing away from a fight. In the end, Rao faced a devil’s dilemma. Who could embarrass the institution more — Wilder or Accordino? It wasn’t much of a choice. When he characterized the incident in his lawsuit as “sexual and racial discrimination,” Wilder indicated a willingness to go thermonuclear. 

Wilder has been embroiled in another lawsuit recently. He sued former Democratic legislator Joe Morrissey, notorious for misconduct allegations arising from his relationship with a 17-year-old employee who is now his wife, for work he had performed for Wilder and the Virginia Slavery Museum. Two of Wilder’s three allegations were thrown out of court after Wilder failed to appear in court in answer to a subpoena from Morrissey’s lawyers.

This case has all the markings of a controversy in which bystanders pick sides based upon their ideological preconceptions. Before we go that route, let’s try to keep an open mind until we see the evidence.

Degree Inflation and Economic Mobility

Image credit: Wall Street Journal

The conventional wisdom tells us that developing human capital is the key to economic development in the knowledge economy, and that helping more Virginians (and Americans) earn more college certificates and degrees is the key to building human capital. This is a core assumption behind Virginia’s Plan for Higher Education, which aims to make Virginia the best-educated state in the country by 2030, and the Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s Blueprint Virginia 2025, which highlights the necessity of building a talent pipeline, including making Virginia “the top state for talent.”

But Frederick M. Hess and Grant Addison with the American Enterprise Institute warn in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today that the emphasis on churning out college degrees can have an unintended effect: degree inflation. And degree inflation can have a pernicious effect: disparate impact on blacks and Hispanics.

“Some 51% of employers have rejected applicants with the requisite skills and experience simply because they didn’t have a college degree, according to a 2017 Harvard Business School study,” Hess and Addison write. “If current trends continue, the authors found, ‘as many as 6.2 million workers could be affected by degree inflation’ — meaning their lack of a bachelor’s degree could preclude them from qualifying for the same job with another employer.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. When practices have a disproportionate impact on minorities in the job selection process, employers must show that any requirements are directly job-related and an accurate predictor of job performance. Given all the legal scrutiny around employment tests, such as IQ tests, possession of a college degree is one of the few proxies for aptitude that doesn’t trigger a risk of litigation.

However, as George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan explained in a Bacon’s Rebellion interview published a week ago, only a small portion of the value of a college degree is what students learn in their classes. Employers regard a college degree mainly as a signal that a job applicant has the intelligence, diligence and social conformity required to earn a degree — all attributes that contribute to making a good employee. If the higher ed system cranks out more students with degrees, he predicted, employers will demand higher degree qualifications — in effect, creating degree inflation.

Hess and Addison also worry about degree inflation and its implications. They write:

In a 2014 survey, Burning Glass Technologies found that employers are increasingly requiring bachelor’s degrees for positions whose current workers do not have one. For example, 65% of job postings for executive assistant and secretary positions call for a degree even though only 19% of people currently employed in such roles hold a degree.

“The Harvard report found that groups with college graduation rates below the national average are disproportionately harmed by the practice,” they write. Smaller percentages of blacks and Hispanics than whites and Asians possess college credentials, squeezing them out of contention for more and more jobs. And with escalating college costs creating an affordability crisis for lower-income Americans, blacks and Hispanics remain disproportionately likely to fail to complete their degree requirements — and take on debilitating student loan debt in the process.

Bacon’s bottom line: If you’re looking for institutional racism in America, this is it. The impetus behind degree inflation isn’t racism, prejudice or a desire to discriminate. As with so many things, degree inflation is driven by the best of motives. But the unintended effect is highly damaging to blacks and Hispanics (as well as to poor whites and the poor of other ethnicities). When everyone has to have a college degree to get a job, those who are poorest, attend the worst schools, and graduate with the most inadequate academic preparation are the biggest losers.

It’s a shame that the social justice warriors don’t get this. Perhaps the myopia stems from the fact that so many SJWs come from academia, making them direct beneficiaries of the degree-inflation phenomenon. It’s much less discomfiting to focus on micro-aggressions or agitate about the statues of Civil War generals than confront the real forces hindering upward mobility for minorities in 21st century America.

Is Mo’ Money the Solution to the STEM Job Shortage?

Governor Ralph Northam. Photo credit: Daily Progress

Speaking at the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Governor Ralph Northam enumerated the main challenges he sees for Virginia’s business environment: diversifying regional economies, creating more opportunity in rural communities, providing dedicated funding for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and reforming state taxes and regulatory structures. Reports the Daily Progress:

The Democratic governor tied most of these problems to two solutions — well-funded schools at all levels and Medicaid expansion, arguing the federal Medicaid funding would allow more state money to be spent in other areas.

“We need to diversify our economy by understanding what the jobs of the 21st century are,” Northam said, citing biotechnology, data collection and data analysis.

“We do that through having excellent colleges and universities that are affordable to all Virginians, but also through supporting and marketing community colleges,” he said. “There are thousands of good, high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.”

Medicaid expansion might pay for itself, but let’s just say I’m skeptical that it will actually save the state money. How many other states that have enacted Medicaid expansion make the claim that they have freed up spending for other priorities? But that’s a side issue.

Of greater interest is Northam’s observation that there are “thousands of good high-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year education.” He is absolutely right about that. He seems to be suggesting — although it’s not entirely clear — that Virginia needs to spend more money to help ameliorate the problem.

As Bacon’s Rebellion readers know, I tend to be skeptical that waving the magic money wand fixes many problems. I’d like to see an analysis of why Virginia’s educational/workforce training system has been unable to meet the demand for STEM jobs.

It is widely known, for example, that there are widespread job shortages in the IT sector. One plausible explanation is limited teaching capacity — there just aren’t enough college and university courses in which to enroll, and existing classes are so full to the brim that would-be IT practitioners are being turned away. Is that, in fact, so?

If there is a capacity shortage, why is there a shortage? Are colleges, universities and even for-profit career schools too dim-witted to see the business opportunity and expand the course offerings? Or, alternatively, do they see the opportunities but are having trouble recruiting instructors to staff the courses?

What if the supply of students is the problem? It is widely acknowledged that STEM programs have high drop-out rates because many American students can’t handle the work. What if the problem is that high schools are not preparing students for college-level STEM work? What if American students don’t have the self-discipline to perform demanding work with right-and-wrong answers?

Finally, what kind of workforce credentials are needed to fill these STEM jobs? Do employers crave workers with certifications that can be obtained at community colleges or for-profit career schools? Or do they need employees with B.A.-, M.A.-, or Ph.D.-level degrees obtainable only through advanced programs? Presumably, both are needed. But what is the proper mix? If more funding is the answer, what is the proper distribution between community colleges and four-year institutions?

I’ve not seen any of this analysis. And I have no confidence that we truly understand the nature of the problem or how best to invest public dollars. Virginia doesn’t have the luxury of throwing dollars at problems we don’t understand. We need to act upon hard evidence, not conjecture.

Virginia Tech Tuition & Fee Increase: 2.9%

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors have voted to raise tuition and fees 2.9% — the 17th straight year of increases. In-state undergraduates will pay an additional $390 per year, reports the Roanoke Times.

In other action, the board voted to construct a $15.2 million student-athlete performance center funded by an anonymous donation, to allocate $10 million to an ACC Network television studio, and to spend $3.2 million to renovate the Commonwealth Ballroom in the Squires Student Center.

By way of comparison: The Consumer Prince Index increased 2.2% over the past 12 months.

How the U.S. News Ranking Skews University Behavior

Data source: U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges

And here they are, the rankings that everybody loves to hate… the U.S. News & World-Report 2018 Best Colleges ranking.

There are numerous other rankings, but the U.S. News publication seems to carry the most clout. I list the rankings here not so much as an objective indicator of the quality of Virginia’s 15 four-year institutions of public education but as a gauge of their relative prestige. Prestige matters because the endless quest for status is one of the primary drivers of college and university priorities and spending.

The aspiration to higher rankings, hence greater prestige, is an endless treadmill. While Virginia’s public institutions strive to climb the ladder, so is every other college and university, both public and private. It’s difficult to rise in the rankings when every other institution in the country is trying to do the same.

Many institutions game the system by applying scarce funds to line items that influence the ranking metrics. Accordingly, it is especially useful to see what U.S. News counts and how institutions might invest resources to improve their scores.

Graduation and retention rates (22.5 percent). U.S. News gives 80% of this measure to the six-year graduation rate and 20% to the first-year retention rate. One can predict that institutions will invest resources to create programs that will influence both of these metrics. Likewise, one can predict that a disproportionate share of resources will be devoted to improving the first-year retention rate.

Undergraduate academic reputation (22.5 percent): U.S. News uses two measures here: academic peer ratings and high school counselor ratings. These are purely subjective, of course. One cannot help but wonder the degree to which the high school counselor ratings are influenced by… previous U.S. News & World-Report rankings. I would hypothesize that institutions intent upon improving their rankings would make efforts to increase visibility among high school counselors. Likewise, I would expect colleges to invest in recruiting star faculty who might bring renown to the institution.

Faculty resources (20 percent): Class size accounts for 40% of this measure. The most points are given to classes with fewer than 20 students, a decreasing number of points are given to classes with 20-29, 30-39, and 40-49, and no points are awarded for classes over 50. I would hypothesize that institutions would respond to this incentive by structuring class sizes to admit the maximum number of students within one of U.S. News‘s brackets. Thus, we would expect to see many more classes enrolling, say, 19 students than 20 students because 19-student classes earn more points under the U.S. News methodology than 20-student classes.

Student selectivity (12.5 percent): Two of the three metrics used in this category are average SAT score and acceptance rate. I would hypothesize that colleges and universities dedicate considerable resources to recruiting high-SAT students, and also that they also dedicate resources to ginning up lots of applications in order to generate the best possible acceptance rate to foster the image of popularity and selectivity. Also, one would expect institutions to dedicate resources to the kinds of assets — newer buildings, cushier dormitories, better food choices — that provide a quick, visceral appeal to high school students visiting campus.

Financial resources (10 percent): U.S. News rewards average spending per student on instruction, research, student services and related educational expenditure. It does not count spending on sports, dorms and hospitals. One would expect universities to adjust their accounting classification of expenses to maximize spending in the favored buckets. Among wealthier institutions, I would predict, there is no practical limit to money spent on student “enrichment” programs such as semesters abroad.

Graduation rate performance (7.5 percent): Adjusting for SAT scores, high school standing, and Pell Grants, U.S. News measures the difference between “expected” and actual graduation rates. If the school’s actual graduation rate is higher than the predicted rate, the college deemed to be enhancing achievement and over-performing. This strikes me as a useful measure, and one that is not easily gamed. I would love to see the data.

Alumni giving rate (5 percent): The percentage of alumni who donate to school is used as an indirect measure of student satisfaction. Of course, this is easily gamed. I would hypothesize that we will see greater resources and creativity expended over time to solicit donations. Even small donations will enhance an institution’s ranking..

What Is a College Degree Worth?

Bryan Caplan

Bryan Caplan doesn’t just think outside the box when it comes to higher education. He stomps on the box and mashes it into the ground.

How much of what college students learn in class do they retain later in life?

Remarkably little, says Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University. And thereupon lies a tale with massive implications for higher education policy in Virginia and nationally.

Students are subject to “fade out,” the diminishing memory of facts, figures, theories, and languages learned in the classroom that receive no reinforcement in life after school. The fact is, the vast majority of what students learn — whether history, English lit, psychology, calculus, French, or astronomy — is irrelevant to their workplace preoccupations as employees, and it is soon forgotten.

In other words, argues Caplan in his book, “The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time,” from a societal perspective the vast majority of college-level schooling represents squandered time and money.

The primary value of earning a college degree is to send a signal to the employment marketplace that the bearer of a sheepskin is intelligent enough, diligent enough, and conformist enough to undergo the multi-year trial of completing the requirements. “For the individual, higher ed helps get you a job and make more money,” said Caplan in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. “But for society, the benefits are very overstated.”

Some colleges and universities teach advanced vocational skills such as engineering or law. Students in those fields do learn skills they will apply in their jobs, but Caplan argues that most disciplines teach little that’s relevant in the world outside the ivory tower. A degree in history, for instance, trains the student to become a historian but not much of anything else. By his spitball estimate, 80% of the career-preparation value of a college education comes from signalling, only 20% from content they master.

Reflecting upon my personal experience, I would have to acknowledge that I have forgotten the vast majority of what I learned while earning B.A. and M.A. degrees in history. I recall only the barest of details from my courses in the history of China, Japan, Latin America, the West Indies, Africa, and European overseas expansion. Forty-plus years later, I know more about these topics than the average Joe, but what I’ve forgotten could fill an encyclopedia. Why? Because in my journalism career in Virginia, I never called upon that knowledge and it faded from memory. By contrast, even though I took only a single college course in American government, I retain a storehouse of knowledge about state and local government in Virginia because I call upon it constantly.

I depart from Caplan in my belief that I did learn something of enduring value at the University of Virginia — how to think rigorously and analytically. But then, I must concede, that skill came mainly from two honors courses in historical methodology co-taught by two extraordinary professors and from the experience of writing a senior thesis, not the vast majority of my courses. Most UVa history majors did not take the honors courses and never benefited from the exceptional give-and-take of that particular program.

Caplan would concede that, yes, college students do learn something of enduring value that benefits them later in life, just not much. If the goal is preparing people for the workforce, as so much of the emphasis is today, most Virginians could learn a lot more during four years on the job than they could in four years of college.

“In the real world, most of what you learn is on the job,” Caplan says. “People get good by doing. … Nobody gets good at anything by taking critical thinking classes. They get good by doing.”

Why, then, do millions of Americans collectively spend tens of billions of dollars to attend college? The main reason, Caplan says, is to get a good job. Higher-ed institutions are adept at sorting applicants by intelligence by using such measures as SAT scores and class rankings. But if that were the only value colleges supplied, businesses would select employees on the basis of IQ tests. The ability to complete a four-year program of 40 or so courses also tells employers about a student’s diligence, self-discipline and willingness to conform to institutional demands. Students who fail to complete a college degree — whether because they are not smart enough, are too lazy, or reject institutional norms — are significantly less likely to make good employees.

Caplan makes a prediction fraught with significance for public policy. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) has set a goal of making Virginia the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, which means putting the public education system on a trajectory to produce thousands of degrees more than it would have on its previous path. If the supply of Virginians with a college degree exceeds the demand, the workforce won’t become any more productive Caplan suggests. But employers will separate the wheat from the chaff by increasing the educational criteria they require — credential inflation — thus requiring Virginians to devote even more time and expense to obtaining those credentials.

Caplan has another concern about setting arbitrary goals for the number of degrees and workforce credentials. Too many students are ill prepared for higher education as it is. American colleges are already full of students who aren’t capable of college-level work. Many of them are taking remedial classes, re-learning what they should have learned in high school. The fact that Americans have more educational credentials than ever says nothing about the quality of education they are receiving.

“If you could actually get schools to turn out people who can read or write, that would be an accomplishment,” Caplan says. “There are plenty of college graduates whom you’d be shocked by how poor their literacy or numeracy is.”

I asked Caplan if he saw any value in higher education as a consumer good — not just earning a degree but enjoying the residential campus experience, including everything from football games and dormitory bull sessions to ample opportunities to indulge in alcohol, drugs and sex. Instead of giving their kid money to backpack around Europe for a year, are parents paying their kids to enjoy four years of maximum freedom and minimum responsibility before embarking upon a lifetime of toil?

Some parents may be motivated by nostalgia for their own college experience, Caplan conceded, but he doesn’t think it’s an important factor in why they insist their kids get a degree. Most people attend college to advance their prospects in the job market. “Suppose college grads didn’t earn anything extra, how many people would still go? … College would be just for rich kids.”

Caplan sees considerable value in on-the-job training such as internships and apprenticeships — programs in which employees gain knowledge that they apply directly to work. I asked if he subscribed to the idea of “just in time learning” —  taking courses and mastering skills as they are needed. 

“From the point of view of taxpayers, that makes a lot more sense,” he says. Even then, he’s guarded about the value of acquiring knowledge by taking college courses. Say an aspiring manager wants to learn project management. How can he or she learn the discipline most effectively — by attending lectures and doing homework, or by shadowing someone on the job? Still, taking courses as needed is less wasteful than sending someone to college for four years and “consuming this giant buffet of stuff they’ll never need again.”

Scientific Knowledge vs Social Constructionism

C.E. Larson

C.E. Larson is a professor of mathematics and applied mathematics at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he’s a big believer in the scientific method as a way of thinking and accumulating knowledge. He’s also worried that a proposed new General Education curriculum winding its way through the VCU bureaucracy is so loaded with trendy, anti-scientific thought that it will make the university “a public and national embarrassment.”

“The proposed curriculum not only appears to be unrigorous and unfocused, but the main problem is that it is implicitly anti-science, at a time when we need to produce graduates — and citizens — who are critical thinkers, and can think like scientists, no matter what discipline they study,” he writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch today.

VCU’s current curriculum is conventional, imposing minimum requirements for quantitative literacy, research & academic writing, humanities/fine arts, social/behavioral sciences, and natural physical sciences. The proposed curriculum uses a very different framework for organizing the curriculum: foundations of learning (writing and critical analysis); diversities in the human experience; creativity, innovation, and aesthetic inquiry; global perspectives; and scientific & logical reasoning.

Given the requirement for scientific & logical reasoning, one might be forgiven for wondering what Larson is worried about. It appears that he was triggered by some of the nomenclature in the proposed curriculum.

There is only space here to mention a single offending guideline from VCU’s proposed General Education curriculum: “Recognize how knowledge is constructed differently in various communities.” Knowledge of course is knowledge. But there are fashions in academia that suggest that the most important kinds of knowledge are somehow not universal, and that there is no “truth” to scientific laws.

One of these trends, alluded to in this curriculum guideline, is “social constructivism” or the “social construction of knowledge.” The main idea here seems to be that because people discover scientific laws, the discoveries must be somehow dependent on the backgrounds (cultural, political, etc.) of the scientists who made them. …

A better guideline here would be to recognize how knowledge is universal, and acquired only slowly over time with great effort, by serious and thoughtful researchers across the planet.

A reading of the proposed curriculum reveals other indicators of leftist/progressive thinking:

  • “Understand and evaluate patterns and processes affecting social organization and distributions of power and resources” — again, it’s all about the power.
  • “Examine patterns of inclusion and exclusion, and other forms of social grouping.” The emphasis on inclusion and exclusion, of course, is a leftist preoccupation.

At the risk of getting all philosophical on you, comrade reader, I do believe there is a modicum of truth to the theory of the social construction of knowledge. Knowledge is socially constructed — what else could it be? Embedded in our genome? Further, it is fair to say that there is a powerful tendency for people to construct modes of thought that support and/or justify their own culture, religion, class, nationality, race, ethnicity, affinity group or interest group. Indeed, this is a universal characteristic of human behavior.

However, that’s not to say that all knowledge is socially constructed. Some knowledge comes closer to reflecting reality than other knowledge. Some approaches to acquiring knowledge allow us to send astronauts to the moon and develop cures for cancer that other approaches cannot. Invariably the approaches that advance technology are based upon empiricism and the scientific method. The scientific method — creating falsifiable hypotheses and testing those hypotheses — is, like everything human, less than perfect and subject to bias, blindness and corruption. But over the long haul, it has worked better than any other approach to acquiring knowledge, and the proof, visible in technological marvels, is there for all to see.

Applying the scientific method to the study of human behavior — psychology, sociology, economics, politics, etc. — is more problematic than the physical sciences because (a) human behavior is so extraordinarily complex and influenced by such a vast number of variables, and (b) people have a greater stake in the outcome, which, therefore, may bias the process of scientific inquiry. (Thus, for example, we get supposedly scientific studies finding that liberals have higher IQs than conservatives.)

While the “scientific” process of acquiring knowledge about human affairs is riddled with pitfalls, it is superior to the process that says we all believe what we want to believe, that knowledge is purely a construct of power, and he (or she, or they, or ze) with the most power imposes his language, mental constructs, and cultural/political views on others.

It’s one thing for individual professors to adopt the constructivist paradigm. It’s another thing for a university administration to embed that paradigm within the curriculum. Is that what VCU’s proposed curriculum seeks to do? It’s hard to tell. Is studying “diversities in human experience” a means to entrench leftist/progressive thought? Given the temper of higher education today, I do share Larson’s concerns. But the curriculum also gives emphasis to “scientific & logical reasoning.” I hate to pre-judge the outcome.