Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Degrees & Dollars

My old college alma mater once again has sent a mailer informing me of an opportunity to send a donation. Once again I’ll forgo the opportunity. I appreciate my experiences there, but I paid for them once and will leave it at that.

My years at GWU in truth were rewarding ones. Not financially. It just so happened that that my subsequent work required no degree and was utterly unrelated to anything I had encountered in college. But college did offer something: it pointed out to me just how much I didn’t know about how many things. My classes provided modest amounts of information about this subject and that, of course, but far more importantly they provided a framework for learning more on my own should I be so inclined. Without such a framework, it is difficult to know where to start. That has been of lifelong value. For this reason alone I recommend the experience to anyone who can afford it. For most people who attended college at that time (I was an outlier) the degree was financially valuable too, at least in the long run. A degree – almost any degree – from that era has been associated with higher lifetime earnings. Besides, college years were fun in other ways.

Most people enjoy their college years, of course, often primarily for reasons less associated with academics than just with being in their late teens and early 20s. A line from Gregg Araki’s cult scifi/college film: “College is just an intermission between high school and the rest of your life – four years of having sex, making stupid mistakes, and experiencing stuff.” For many this apparently is all there is to it. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses describes a look at 3000 students on 29 American campuses – a large sample. Among the findings: after two years 45% of the students were no more knowledgeable or capable of critical thinking than when they graduated high school; even after a full four years 36% showed no improvement over high school. The students in the survey studied only half as much as students four decades earlier though somehow they maintained an average overall grade-point average of 3.2. Professor Arum of NYU, lead author, calls the numbers “kind of shocking.” There has been one noteworthy increase: cost. Tuition in inflation-adjusted dollars has doubled since the 70s – in some cases much more than doubled. So have associated costs such as board and books. Accordingly, the net financial rewards to a degree have become less certain. Degrees in engineering and the hard sciences still pay off, even with higher student debt, but a liberal arts degree (like mine) is far more problematical, with unemployment rates among graduates double that of the science majors. A recent Brookings Institution report notes the importance of distinguishing among degree types when asking “Is college worth it?” (Their answer: overall yes, but in some categories not necessarily.)

Do I have any advice for anyone college-bound who does not plan to pursue a hard science? Yes. Don’t go to college for the money, because there might not be any. There might be less. Do it to try to become a better rounded person. If that outcome doesn’t seem probable or, if achieved, an adequate return on the investment, maybe one should drop the idea and look in the want-ads instead.

Even though they were during the last bloom of hippiedom and psychedelia, my college years were a bit less weird than this. Kaboom (2010) trailer:



  1. Yeah, the average returns on the investment is hard to gauge, but as you said, I don't have any regrets about going, and applaud my parents for trying to better my life. I might also add there were some pretty screwball professors with oddball methods there as well--some should not have been teaching.

    I remember a marketing professor that gave negative point test. (Yeah, no one knew what that meant either.) Basically it meant, if you guessed at a question, and got it wrong, you got a negative point. So if I'm thinking of this correctly, if you answered every question on the test, and got everyone wrong, you could make -100 on the test. Boy, talk about trying to pull out of that one. And I believe, it also meant if you answered half right and half wrong, you got a -50, rather than just making a 50. I thinking that's right. But as I said, screwball.

    I guess she was trying to alleviate her class from guessing. But what good is that? Sometimes it's good to make a good guess or use common sense.

    I had another professor that taught economics that had such a thick Middle East accent we could barely make out what he was saying--and he was a very hard teacher. So those were a few of the down sides. Still, aside from that, I enjoyed it. Met some good friends, and some good times.

    1. My favorite grading story is from Dr. Alexander Calandra, a physics professor at Washington University. A colleague asked him to be an impartial judge in a dispute over a test score. One test question asked how to determine the height of a building using a barometer. One student answered, “Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.” The student claimed he should get credit because he answered the question, but the professor objected that the student had evaded the intent of the question. Calandra suggested a compromise: the student simply should answer the question again. The student immediately came up with several more answers, not one of which involved atmospheric pressure. They included the following: drop the barometer off the roof and time its fall to the ground using the formula d = 1/2a x t-squared to calculate the height; on a sunny day, measure the height of the barometer, the shadow of the barometer, and the shadow of the building, and then by the law of proportion calculate the height of the building; and, my personal favorite, knock on the superintendent’s door and give him the barometer in exchange for telling you the height of the building. Calandra said to give the student credit.

  2. Ha, nothing like outwitting the system. :)

  3. Yeah I loved college. And I think my critical thinking skills improved while I was there. I also exposed me to all kinds of different ways to look at subject and ideas. Finally, it was probably the first time in a long time where I was asked my opinion on a topic - not to just regurgitate what was in a book. But to use what was in the book as a jumping off point for ideas. We NEVER did that in high school.

    One of my favorite courses was Philosophy of Art. Lots of us talking pretentiously about art and music and films and just about anything you can imagine. It was co-taught by a music professor and a literature professor. And sometimes they would get into full blown debates, and it was fascinating to watch the fireworks. We even got to meet the Big Band legend Artie Shaw. Very very cool class.

    1. Any class where Artie Shaw shows up is a cool class.

      I hope colleges still encourage pretentious discussions: there is no better time and place for them.