Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

8/21/2005

You won’t find yourself in university if you got lost somewhere else

File under: No More Pencils, No More Books, I Read The News Today, Oh Boy. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 3:21 pm.

This article from the Georgia Straight does a decent job of quantifying and probing some observations I made in some earlier posts I wrote about the contradictory messages students receive on the relationship between university and employment. University, it seems, is neither a path to a career nor a place to develop intellectually - rather, it’s a place to wander about aimlessly with little guidance on either front:

  • About half of postsecondary students drop out or change programs by the end of their first year
  • Up to four out of five students don’t know what they want to do with their education when they start it
  • Just 75 percent of students completed the college or institute credential they set out to earn
  • Just 44 percent of former students reported that their job is “very related” to the training they took (Aside - I’m surprised it’s that high, actually.)

Unfortunately, the writer then muddies the waters by lamenting the rising cost of tuition. Which is a barrier to higher education for many, to be sure, but the rest of the article makes a pretty compelling case for just how overly accessible university educations are to a large contingent of people who have no clue what to do with them. I also disagree with a statement made by Phillip Jarvis, developer of career-exploration tests, who remarks, “Education changes slower than anything else in the country, and career is changing at an accelerated rate.” Having seen the changes undergone by high school and university mathematics curricula in the past decade, I’m inclined to disagree that education is stagnant. I’ll concede, however, that high school and university education are diverging from the practical, career-related goals they’re purported to fill.

Nevertheless, the main point of the article is a good one: that career counselling and skills training in the university are vitally important, and that both are between bad and nonexistent.

So, can someone remind me a) why it’s taken for granted that everyone who can afford it (and many who can’t) should go to university, b) why students are expected to go straight from high school to university, c) why university is the canonical setting for self-discovery among middle-class children of professionals, d) why, given the facts, many employers will overlook applicants with “only” two-year diplomas or hands-on training in a trade, and e) why government organizations and activists concerned with education accessibility focus their energies almost exclusively on the Rising Cost of a University EducationTM, and not on alternatives to same?

29 Comments

  1. A, B, and E are all because of D.

    D happens because of stupid management and HR.

    Stupid management and HR happen because no one who is actually smart has any desire to be a manager.

    - kevin — 8/21/2005 @ 6:06 pm

  2. Over at Parapundit, someone said that employers demand degrees because aptitude testing is a legal minefield (which appears to be true; linky).

    What employers are doing is “alternative credentialing”.  It’s far more expensive than simple testing (which they cannot do any longer), but far less expensive than firing (and defending suits from) the less-than-suitable hires they would get without any kind of credentialing at all.

    - Engineer-Poet — 8/21/2005 @ 7:24 pm

  3. I think some employers require a college degree in the hope it will screen out slackers.

    - Chris Phan — 8/22/2005 @ 3:28 am

  4. The observation that “about half of postsecondary students drop out or change programs by the end of their first year” strikes me as an odd conflation of two very different phenomena. Many of the people I went to university with changed programs by the end of their first year, or even their second, and I think that in most of those cases, it was because they were indeed developing intellectually, not drifting aimlessly. (Come to think of it, I believe that at U of T one isn’t expected to declare a major until second year, anyway.) University is (for many people, though not all) a great and liberating opportunity to learn stuff that you really want to learn, and I don’t think we should be too surprised or dismayed if it takes people a year or two of this to figure out exactly what it is they really want to learn.

    The dropout rate really is symptomatic of a problem, of course; in the ideal case, everyone who comes in to a university should end up earning a degree. But I think it’s misleading, or at least uninformative, to combine the number of dropouts—people who make a U-turn in their academic careers—with the number of people who change programs and find another way forward.

    - Q. Pheevr — 8/22/2005 @ 7:35 am

  5. The undeclared major/college dropout connection is actually pretty strong at my university, I think. The undeclared majors get the world’s worst advisors. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they were getting kickbacks for the number of extraneous courses they’ve had students take. I don’t know how it is for their other courses, but I know that in the past my students have been given some real bonehead advice regarding math. I’ve had students who completed calculus in HS be advised to start with remedial algebra because “that’s where everybody starts”, students advised to take two distinct math courses (simultaneously!) to satisfy two requirements when one of the courses would have satisfied both requirements, etc. etc. With advice like that, it’s no wonder so many of them drop out.

    - Wacky Hermit — 8/22/2005 @ 7:59 am

  6. I’m one of these people who mess up the stats. I changed my major at the end of my freshman year and again midway through junior year when I dropped out of college. I also took a bunch of undergrad courses after my BA and had declared that I was going to get a second bachelor’s but didn’t (the declaration helped me get priority enrollment as a major and getting the second bachelor’s would have required me to take 3 more classes than was my plan, 2 of which I would have taken anyway). And yet I now have a masters in math education (kinda sorta major #2) and am on the road to a PhD in math. But I’d count as a drop-out to many counters.

    - vito prosciutto — 8/22/2005 @ 8:34 am

  7. Chris Phan - in that case, employers are wilfully ignoring an awful lot of evidence to the contrary, such as the vast number of college students who admit to cheating. Slackers abound in university, as do dishonest people. If I were trying to find non-slackers, I’d look for people with practical job experience; barring that, I’d try to find students who held leadership positions in extracurricular activities.

    Q. Pheevr - good point on the drop out vs switch majors point, but I do think the latter is worth documenting. I don’t think that it should be taken for granted that in all cases, this intellectual development had to take place in university. Perhaps if high school college prep classes actually lived up to their name, incoming university students would have a better idea of what they were interested in, and able to do.

    And Wacky Hermit - having taught first-year calculus to a variety of students, including ones who’d taken calculus in high school, I’m not sure it’s such a bad idea to start everyone in remedial algebra :/

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/22/2005 @ 9:35 am

  8. Next week, as part of the graduate program that I’m starting (for a PhD in math), I will be taught how to teach. This program lasts approximately twelve hours. I was discussing this with my housemate this morning, and she pointed out to me that a lot of universities don’t do anything, which seems fundamentally irresponsible to me. She said that “this is why higher education is broken” — because the teachers we put in front of many of the best students (i. e. those who are undergrads at major research universities) are taught by people who don’t even want to be teaching and are just doing it so that they can be able to do the research they really care about.

    Somewhat more relevantly, it wouldn’t surprise me if the reason that the Powers that Be insist that everyone who can possibly get a university education does so is because these people all HAVE university educations. They do not wish to admit that their degrees are worthless, or even slightly less valuable than they thought, because that would mean many of them spent several times the average annual income in the US (or, I suppose, Canada, although I’m not sure what prices are like there) for what amounts to a Very Expensive Piece of Paper.

    - Isabel — 8/22/2005 @ 9:38 am

  9. “A, B, and E are all because of D.

    D happens because of stupid management and HR.”

    I agree with the first statement, but I’ve interviewed my share of new grads and have come to the conclusion that, at least in the U.S., a degree from Local Third-Tier University guarantees that the candidate can tie his or her shoes. All other skills are a bonus.

    Now, mind you, that’s not saying that all the graduates from LTTU are idiots. But students who enter college without proper preparation are so legion that entire programs have been dumbed down accordingly. As we systematically cheapen higher education (in the value sense, not the cost sense) more and more is required in the hope that it can assure some level of basic competency at being an adult human.

    - Karen — 8/22/2005 @ 2:21 pm

  10. “) why it’s taken for granted that everyone who can afford it (and many who can’t) should go to university”

    Diplomas impress people. Not everyone, but most. Plus, they say that studies show that people with a college diplomas learn more than people with a GED over a lifetime. That’s enough incentive to make everyone want to go to college.

    “e) why government organizations and activists concerned with education accessibility focus their energies almost exclusively on the Rising Cost of a University EducationTM, and not on alternatives to same?”
    I agree, who looks after those textbook comapnies that churn out editions of the same book (w/ minor modifications) year after year?

    - didier — 8/22/2005 @ 2:48 pm

  11. ” the teachers we put in front of many of the best students (i. e. those who are undergrads at major research universities) are taught by people who don’t even want to be teaching and are just doing it so that they can be able to do the research they really care about.”

    Isable, are you talking about grad students or research professors? :)

    - didier — 8/22/2005 @ 2:49 pm

  12. Change programs means what? I don’t think there’s much importance on sticking w/your program (= major) in the first year, where most of the courses are fairly general. I’d argue it’s possibly a good thing to be open to changing majors. (I did that poorly, but I think it was good anyhow: I disagree with systems which lock you in very early. Of course, theere’s nothing wrong with *not* changing, either.)

    I’m also not clear how much of a problem it is that they don’t know what they want to do with their degrees. Of the people who do know, how much is this related to what they actually do end up doing?

    I agree with the overpush towards universities instead of technical programs, but I think that these problems are somewhat different.

    - wolfangel — 8/22/2005 @ 3:20 pm

  13. a) why it’s taken for granted that everyone who can afford it (and many who can’t) should go to university,

    Because people that go to universities tend to be in the middle class afterward, and create a healthier society to live in. Also, eduction is the great equalized - even if you come from weak background, you can overcome it if you have a good education.

    b) why students are expected to go straight from high school to university,

    Because the older people get, the higher probability that they get married, families, or just lose the ability to learn. Thus, this is the best time for them to learn. Also, going directly from high-school imply that the material is fresh in their mind.

    c) why university is the canonical setting for self-discovery among middle-class children of professionals,

    They just left home, and are treated as grownups to the first time. What do you want them to do?

    d) why, given the facts, many employers will overlook applicants with “only” two-year diplomas or hands-on training in a trade, and

    Because employers care about the ability of the person, and less about the formal education of the person. If you have only 2 year degree, then on average you would be not as hard working/smart/etc as somebody that did 4 year college degree from a real university.

    e) why government organizations and activists concerned with education accessibility focus their energies almost exclusively on the Rising Cost of a University EducationTM, and not on alternatives to same?

    Because good university education is so much more expensive than the other forms of educations. The other forms of education you can usually get on the free market at reasonable value.

    - Null Idiot — 8/22/2005 @ 9:07 pm

  14. I take exception to almost everything Null Idiot says. However, I will not go into the disagreements, as my attitude is pretty much MS’s and so I need not repeat her.

    I will explore where I agree with NI:

    Education =can= be a great equalizer. It has been a great help to my own family in the last three generations. My grandmother started college when she was in her 40s, got her degree in special education and then got a Masters in special education. She started a career outside the home after raising three kids to adulthood. My father went from his small town in South Carolina to Clemson to being an engineer at IBM. In my own educational opportunities, I’ve gotten to meet the best in math (including MS… howdy there!)

    Of course, we all had a solid grounding in our primary education.

    And this is the problem. Education doesn’t start at college. People coming into college having no study skills, no writing skills, and no math skills… well, I =guess= we can equalize it by making sure nobody learns anything, but I don’t think the Harrison Bergeron world is terribly popular.

    And I don’t think there’s a college program out there that can take someone who can barely achieve basic literacy and turn them into a pharmaceutical researcher. So what happens, in some programs, is that particular majors are for those who can’t quite do much of anything academically.

    As someone noted above, when it comes to employment, many of the credentials are all about signalling. It is very unlikely that much of what you did in college will have anything to do with your job either ever… or for very long. They are looking for people who are able to work and be able to adapt to new situations. (As I said to MS once “We’ve =always= used whale oil! What do you mean we’ve got to make gaslight lamps?”)

    And so, that’s why particular degrees carry cachet in professions far from the original subject matter. People with degrees in physics can get jobs as quants on Wall Street — not only because they know math, but because it’s pretty damn difficult to dumb down a physics program. I’m sure that having a degree in a hard science/engineering from any four-year university will be a huge plus signal compared to many majors at even well-known universities.

    - meep — 8/23/2005 @ 6:42 am

  15. “Over at Parapundit, someone said that employers demand degrees because aptitude testing is a legal minefield (which appears to be true; linky).”

    FYI: recently, there have been a number of books, on tests like MMPI, with amazing details exposed. Check them out on NPR, Amazon, NYTBooks.

    - A.D. — 8/23/2005 @ 6:52 am

  16. “If I were trying to find non-slackers, I’d look for people with practical job experience; barring that, I’d try to find students who held leadership positions in extracurricular activities.”

    Here in the States, firms like Microsoft (a.k.a., “The Evil Empire”) do face-to-face, real-time testing of abilities. Quickly eliminates the cheaters, phony types, and slackers. Students would be well-advised to note this trend.

    - A.D. — 8/23/2005 @ 6:55 am

  17. In engineering, many companies prefer to hire candidates with Master’s degrees, not so much because of the intrinsic value of the extra education, but because it shows that the candidate has enough ambition and persistence to do an advanced degree. Such people are considered less likely to be professional slackers.

    As someone else said, it’s about signalling.

    - Karen — 8/23/2005 @ 10:28 am

  18. Karen - sure, perseverence is necessary to get through (many) Master’s programs. (Other Master’s degrees are barely worth the paper they’re written on - I’m not going to name any schools here…). But there are other ways to prove that you’re the perseverin’ type; if that’s the main purpose of a Master’s degree, then employers would do just as well to hire Olympic athletes. Or people who started at some entry-level position with another employer and worked their way up over a 10-15 year period.

    Null Idiot - ah, where to begin? First, what Meep said about how education ain’t gonna equalize at the university level if students were poorly-educated beforehand. (Nor should it; is it a GOOD thing that more and more universities are offering remedial-level courses?)

    Most of your other responses are begging all sorts of questions; your assumption that students entering university directly high school indicates that the material is fresh in their minds is no more than that - an assumption. Witness the typical elementary/high school math curriculum, which spends the first three or four months of every year reviewing last year’s material. Also, when people marry and have kids, are they just incapable of learning more in university, or are they incapable of learning more, period (something that can happen outside of university, and woe be unto those people who stop learning when they matriculate - I sure wouldn’t want them working for me) or are they incapable also of applying their knowledge to other aspects of their lives? I’m having trouble seeing how it would possibly be only that first one; and if it’s not, why not postpone university until later in life?

    Finally - you justify employers not even considering applicants without university degrees as follows: Because employers care about the ability of the person, and less about the formal education of the person.In that case, why not administer an aptitude test or an IQ test? Or have high school student apply to a four-year program, and if they get in, have the university write a letter stating that they got into the program? That should do just as well as the actual degree, since the formal education is apparently irrelevant.

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/23/2005 @ 2:04 pm

  19. M.S. - I think your response to Chris Phan doesn’t really address the issue of slackers. I mean, there are people who cheat, and then there are the people who can’t even be bothered to do that. Employers want to hire people who will show up and do the job, which certainly isn’t a good description of all college/university graduates, but certainly degrees and diplomas are positively correlated to showing up.

    - djfatsostupid — 8/23/2005 @ 4:36 pm

  20. MS: The reason employers don’t apply an aptitude/IQ test is because (in the U.S., at least) it’s =illegal=.

    Yup, because various “underrepresented” groups don’t do as well (as a group) on these tests, they’re considered illegally biased. So they have to use various proxies, like which college you went to and what you majored in (and you GPA in said major).

    - meep — 8/23/2005 @ 5:18 pm

  21. Doesn’t Microsoft use IQ tests in its hiring?

    - Independent George — 8/24/2005 @ 7:10 am

  22. IG - no, but they use interview questions that are pretty good, but invalidated proxies. I think going to the trouble of validating them would put the use of those questions into the illegal category.

    The one US institution that does use aptitude tests is the military.

    - John — 8/24/2005 @ 7:43 am

  23. Ok, the Google tells me that IQ testing is in fact illegal in the US; I’m not sure what the relevant Canadian law is. Because of the size of the US market, I imagine it’s as much a case of Canada adapting to US workpractices as opposed to an actual legal restriction, but that’s just wild uninformed speculation on my part.

    The Googoracle also tells me that Microsoft does not administer written IQ tests, but does use similar questions in oral interviews. The reason for this is, as indicated above, fears of discrimination lawsuits. Apparently, according to US laws, written aptitude tests graded by machines are ‘biased’, but oral tests administered and scored by humans are not. Go figure.

    The relevant US case law is the 1971 Supreme Court decision, Griggs vs. Duke Power. The actual decision is a bit more nuanced than just a question of whether a test has a ‘disparate impact’ on a protected minority. Rather, it says that a disparate impact consititutes de facto discrimination if it can’t be demonstrated to be directly related to the job. This seems like a good idea on the face of it - it’s trying to prohibit arbitrary tests which might discriminate while maintaining the appearance of fairness. In theory, you can still have tests if you can demonstrate it is directly related to the job. In practice, this bars general aptitude tests, as the only tests which pass this standard will be too specialized to be of much use, as the cost of administering the test is greater than the increased productivity. Since most jobs these days involve rapidly changing skill-sets, general aptitude tests are often far more relevant than specialized skills which are obsolescent after a few short years. Worse yet, it also makes the courts, rather than the employer, the arbiter of what is relevant to the job.

    I’m not qualified to evaluate it from a legal perspective, but I’d have to say it’s a pretty lousy decision from the perspective of business or economics. In other words, Hayek was right.

    Meanwhile, I’d better get back to work before I get fired for disparate impact on my output, regardless of my IQ.

    - Independent George — 8/24/2005 @ 8:17 am

  24. John - wooops, spent too much time googling, I didn’t see your comment. Maybe I should put my AFQT scores on my resume after I get fired for wasting company bandwidth…

    - Independent George — 8/24/2005 @ 8:22 am

  25. I meant to say unvalidated proxies. Big difference. Sheesh.

    - John — 8/24/2005 @ 10:30 am

  26. All right, so here’s my question: is anyone making the case that IQ tests are racially biased, whereas the did-you-go-to-univerisity-in-particular-a-good-university issue is settled in an entirely colourblind setting? Because I’d be reeealllly interested to hear that one.

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/24/2005 @ 11:04 am

  27. Given the way US universities bend over backwards to admit non-Asian minorities, I’d say if there is any color bias in using University diplomas, it’s against white males and Chinese.

    - John — 8/24/2005 @ 1:57 pm

  28. OK, now we’re really veering off-topic, but one’s ability to attend and pay for, let alone graduate from, a university depends on far more than admission. The school where I used to work had scholarships designed explicitly for a certain educationally disadvantaged minority group that will remain nameless. These scholarship students comprised about 8% of my students, and 30% of those of my students who failed my classes. So, these scholarships got these particular students of mine in the door, but I doubt a majority will graduate. Gah. I’m so sick of affirmative-action programs directed at the post-secondary level and beyond - most of it completely overlooks the possibility that members of $ETHNICGROUP aren’t getting the good universities and the good jobs because their education up to that point sucked (quite possibly for reasons involving racism).

    But anyway, given that IQ’s remain more or less stable throughout one’s life, regardless of education, whereas attending a good university costs a lot of money (full scholarships exist, but they don’t grow on trees), I’d say that hiring people based on IQ scores would be a lot less racially- and class-biased than hiring them based on their possession of a diploma. Do universities get kickbacks from employers? Seems like they should.

    - Moebius Stripper — 8/24/2005 @ 2:13 pm

  29. If you count things like endowed chairs as kickbacks, yes they do.

    - John — 8/26/2005 @ 3:55 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.