College Through the Looking Glass

About a hundred years ago, Oxford professor John Alexander Smith addressed the first session of his moral philosophy class as follows: “Gentlemen, nothing that you will learn in the course of yours studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life [that is, after college, not after death--HB], save only this: that is you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to deter when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”

j9651Inevitably, author Andrew Delbanco continues: “Americans tend to prefer a two-syllable synonym…for the Angicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning…” Okay, you get the idea. (Odd that I am  reluctant to spell out B.S. given that the quote comes from a book published by Princeton University. Anyway…)

The book is called College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and it’s actually fun to read, not stuffy at all, rather like a good lecture about the dubious history, dubious purpose, and dubious results of a college education, or, if you prefer, as I do and the author does, to consider the dubious and to celebrate the remarkable. Both are present, and have been since the very start. Early in the book, Abigail Adams can be found complaining about the current state of students, professors and education in general–that’s in 1776, but the complaints and criticisms date back to Greek and Roman times, long before our current institutions were a thought in anybody’s mind.

Today, there are about four thousand colleges in the United States. The author has visited about 100 of them, so I respect what he has to say, particularly as he discusses the liberal arts education that would provide, at least in part, the mechanism for the bullshit detector (there, I wrote it!) that is, in part, the reason for going to college in the first place. For a very long while, well, this is best said by Ohio State economics professor Richard Vedder:

with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had absolutely no productivity advance in the 2400 years since Socrates.”

A quote from former Johns Hopkins president William Brody is a nice addition:

if you went to a [college] class circa 1900 and you went today, it would look exactly the same, while you went to an automobile plant in 1900 and today, you wouldn’t recognize the place.”

The author is a college professor, and although he’s critical of the industry he clearly adores, he is quite clear on the statistics, and the reasons why college makes sense, worts and all.

Although not completely consistent with importance of a liberal arts education, or a college education generally, a college degree, even a Bachelor’s Degree, is a very good investment: those with a B.A. earn about 60 percent more than those whose resume lacks the degree. This fact leads to another one, and here, we begin to get at the real story of college in America:

if you are a child of a family making more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a B.A. by age twenty-four are roughly one in two; if your family’s income is between $60,000 and $90,000, your odds are roughly one in four; if your parents make less than $35,000, your odds are one in seventeen.”

It’s wrong to think about these patterns in isolation. Upscale students attend more selective colleges whose prestigious graduates are funneled into leadership roles in business, law and government. It’s a self-perpetuating system, the engine of social mobility in the United States even in the 21st century.

So that’s one argument in favor of college: economic success. The other argument demands a well-educated citizenry, what Professor Delbanco calls “the incubation of citizenship” as he defends the small group discussion in the above video. Strangely, this is not the argument that legislators focus upon–instead, they tend toward the more practical, and, in the long run, perhaps less significant, concern about the need for a population that understands ideas and makes wise decisions. College has always struggled with that role; those in law school and the like receive these messages and tend to think about these issues, but as for the rest of college students (and the rest of us, including those who have been through a more generalized college experience), not so much.

So here we are with a realist, a professor who seems to understand the arguments from multiple perspectives, stressing “a community of learning” on the one hand and recognizing, when considering a New York Times article, “for every one of those college-bound cars, there are scores of families whose children will be staying home to attend a commuter school without anything resembling traditional college life. Moreover, millions of college-age Americans never get to college in the first place.”

By the time they reach age twenty-six, “fewer than two-thirds of white high school graduates have enrolled in college.” The number is half for blacks, and slightly less for Hispanics. Among students who do enroll, more than a third never finish their degree.

There are so many issues, and often, it’s difficult for the average person to gain traction with many of them. This is precisely the place where a good college professor can make all the difference. And if you can’t afford or can’t quite make it to Princeton this month or this year, well, you (and I) now more fully understand the reason why many universities publish their professors’ best work in book form. Turns out, the book, which is also undergoing attack from every possible direction, remains a darned good idea for a hot sunny afternoon. I now know some things I didn’t know this morning, and I’m thinking about them hours later. Not quite the same as being in the presence of the man, but spending three hours reading about 200 pages of his well-written, well-edited ideas for just $17.95 (less if you buy online) is, simply, a good old-fashioned idea.

U.S. Education by the Numbers

Today, more students are enrolled in school than ever before. And the trend is accelerating. In fact, all of the population numbers in this article have increased by about ten percent in the past ten years; in the next decade, the acceleration will increase. For the moment, let’s focus on the U.S., and, in time, in future articles, the view will expand. Note that much of his information comes from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Before we dig deeply, I suppose it’s interesting to note that there are about 99,000 public schools (including just over 5,000 charter schools), plus more than 33,000 private schools.

640px-College_graduate_studentsThis year, there are slightly fewer than 50 million public school students, including about 15 million high school students in public school. Add another 5 million students in private school, including over 1 million in private high schools.

Each year, about 4 million students start high school. (Actually, the number is about 3.7-4.0 million). Remember that number: it’s the basis for some arithmetic below.

There are many ways to calculate high school graduation rates, and the Federal government has been improving the reliability, accuracy and precision of these metrics. Distribution is uneven: students in some ethnic groups, who live in some states or cities or districts, may fare better or worse (as poorly as 1 in 2 graduating, for example).

In our simple (and, perhaps, simplistic) calculation, it would be fair to assume that about 4 million students start high school and about 3 million finish high school.

About 2 in 3 males, and about 3 in 4 female, enroll in college.

Each year, just under 2 million bachelor’s degrees, plus just short of a million earn an associates degree. And although not everybody earns a bachelor’s degree in four years or an associate’s degree in two years, on average, the vast majority of people who graduate high school–that is, about 3 in 4 of the people who started ninth grade–earn a college degree.

What’s more, nearly one million advanced degrees (masters, doctorate) are awarded every year. It’s fair to assume more than a half million people earn these degrees each year–or about 1 in 6 f the people who graduated high school.

Taking this into the workplace, in 2010, nearly 3 out of 4 college graduates were employed, in comparison with just over 1 in 2 people with only a high school diploma. On average, those college graduates also earned more money: over $45,000 for the college graduates compared with just under $30,000 for high school graduates without a college degree.

All of this sounds terrific, but I wonder whether the numbers are correct.

Last spring, The Atlantic published an article that placed just over 40 percent of 18-24 year olds in college, and offered a graduate rate (within a generous six years) of just 56 percent. If I understand this story correctly: roughly 20 percent of 24 year olds earn a college degree. The Atlantic story was inspired by a report prepared by Reuters.

So why does the National Center for Education Statistics report 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees per year? (I may not be comparing [teacher's] apples to apples, but this discrepancy seems to be quite large.)

The purpose of this article is not to challenge these sources, but instead, to try to get a fix on the actual numbers, and the state of U.S. education today. Why? If 3 in 4 people are indeed graduating high school, then we’re working on the right problem, especially if the vast majority of high school grads finish college and earn a good wage. However, if only 3 in 4 high school grads are attending college, and only 1 in 2 of them are actually finishing college, that only 1 in 4 Americans are college graduates.

Gee, those numbers seem wrong to me–the number of college graduates is probably over fifty percent–so why don’t the numbers add up?


Success! Good Health! Longevity! Fabulous Children!

You can do it! You’ll need a college degree and you’ll need to move to a place where 21st century America’s promise shines. Seattle, the SF Bay Area, New York City,

Boston, and the ring around Washington, DC.–those are the places where innovation is held in high esteem and is most likely to be funded so that new companies can be born, grow, and change the economic picture for employees, shareholders, and those smart enough to live nearby.

These are the places where venture capitalists fund big opportunities, and if a company seems promising, a VC will often require a move to, say, Silicon Valley, or not to fund the company at all. The “thickness” of the job opportunities in the Silicon Valley (and a very small number of other places), and the thickness of people with the necessary skills to suit those needs, not only attracts the best (and highest paid) people to these centers, where their high incomes tend to generate more jobs for the local economy (usually with salaries that are higher than even unskilled high school dropouts will find at home). If you’re an attorney, you’ll make as much as 30-40% more if you work in these areas than in an old rust belt city. The same is true for cab drivers and hair stylists.

Much has been made of Google’s employee perks; they won’t play in Hartford or Indianapolis, but neither of those places, nor most other American cities, see the kinds of financial results and spillover effects in the community enjoyed by the area around San Francisco. This is becoming the area that drives the American 21st century. And it’s very difficult for other cities to get into the game.

Author and UC Berkeley Professor Enrico Moretti has just published a book that presents a compelling picture of the much-changed US economy. The title of the book, The New Geography of Jobs, undersells the concept. Yes, if you can, you should move to any of these places, where you will make more money than you will at home–regardless of whether you are a high school dropout or a Ph.D. You will probably live longer, remain healthier, provide a better path for your children, live in a nicer home, have smarter friends, smoke less, drive a nicer car, you name it… the American dream lives large in San Diego, but in Detroit or Flint, Michigan, it’s gone and it’s not likely to return any time soon.

Average male lifespan in Fairfax, VA is 81 years. In nearby Baltimore, it’s just 66.

That’s a fifteen year difference. This statistic tracks with education attained, poverty level, divorce rates, voter turnout (and its cousin, political clout), lots more.

Want to remain employed? Graduate from college.

Nationwide unemployment rates: about 6-10% for high school only, 10-14% for incomplete high school, 3-4% for college graduates.

College degrees matter…far more than you might think. In Boston, with 47% of its population holding college degrees, for example, the average college graduate earns $75k and the average high school graduate earns $62,000. By comparison, Vineland NJ–just outside Philadelphia in South Jersey, has just 13% college graduates, and a college graduate earns an average of $58,000, with high school graduates at $38,000. Yes, it costs less to live in Vineland, but over a lifetime, people who live in Vineland are leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table, perhaps as much as a half million dollars over a lifetime.

Real cost of college, including sacrificed employment: $102,000. At age fifty, average college graduate earns $80,000, but average high school graduate earns $30,000.

If a 17-year old goes to college, he or she will earn more than a million dollars lifetime. If not, it’s less than a half million.

What’s more, 97% of college educated moms are married at delivery, compared with 72% of high school-only grads. Just 2% of college-educated moms smoked during pregnancy compared with 17% with a high school education and 34% of drop-out moms. Fewer premature babies, fewer babies with subsequent health issues. Almost half of college graduates move out of their birth states by age 30. By comparison: 27 percent of high school dropouts and 17 percent of high school dropouts. The market for college graduates is more national; the market for non-grads is more local.

Caught in the middle? The best thing you can do is hang out with people who are pushing their way up the productivity curve. That is, MOVE! Leave the town where things aren’t happening, and take a job, almost any job with growth potential, in a place with high potential.

While the arguments about fencing lower-income immigrants out persist, most people earning graduate degrees today are immigrants. And a high percentage of people who start significant new businesses, funded by venture capital, are first generation Americans.

Today, an immigrant is significantly more likely to have an advanced degree than a student born in the US.

Foreign born workers account for 15% of the US labor force, but  half of US doctorate degrees are earned by immigrants. Immigrants are 30% more likely to start a business. Since 1990, they have accounted for 1in 4 venture backed companies. When they start a new business, they generate high-value jobs, which brings more money into the community (not any community, only the ones with a thick high-skill / high value workforce and a thick range of desirable jobs), and the people who fill these jobs generate more jobs in the retail and services sector, jobs that pay more in the high value areas than they do at home.

A century ago, investment money went to Detroit for its car industry, and to the midwest for productive factories. That era is ending. Innovation in the health sciences, technology, software, internet, mobile, and other fields is the driver of American productivity–but not everywhere. Clusters attract the best and the brightest from metros without the necessary thickness, leaving lesser places with fewer people who can make big things happen.

There is so much more here (sorry for the long blog post, but this is a very powerful book). We need to generate more college graduates, especially more men, and especially more people with STEM expertise (science, technology, engineering, math). We need to do a far better job in educating and creating opportunity (including opportunity for mobility) among those with fewer advantages. We’ve got a lot of work to do. First step: read the book!

I’m investing $165K in the child who lives next door

In the U.S., 76 million students are currently enrolled in pre-K through graduate school. About 55 million students are in pre-K, elementary, junior high, or high school, and about 20 million more are enrolled in community colleges, four year colleges and universities, and graduate programs.

The cost of a pre-K through 12th grade education: $650 billion for 55 million people, or about $12,000 per student per year. Figure a total investment of $165,000 per student for the entire pre-K through high school run. In fact, nearly nine out of ten adults finish high school (most by 18, some later).

Add four years of college, and the total per-student investment exceeds $200,000. As it turns out, that’s the investment made by or for about one in three American adults.

Here’s another way to think about it. You’re in a room with ten people. One of those people never finished high school. Six finished high school, but not college. Three finished college. This is America:

“Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of the adult population 25 years of age and over who had completed high school rose from 84 to 87%, and the percentage of adults with a bachelor’s degree increased from 26% to 30%.”

Researchers argue about whether the precise high school drop-out rate is closer to 12% or 33%–a very wide range–but 25% is comfortably in-between, hence the “one-in-four” assumption. For minority students, the drop-out rate is somewhere between 50% (yikes!) and 85%, so one-in-three seems to be a reasonable starting point for any discussion. This is an enormous problem. High school drop-outs earn far less than graduates, and often disrupt families and communities because their options are comparatively narrow.

Is there reason to be concerned about one in three Americans graduating from college?

As part of its College Completion agenda, The College Board reports the number of 25-34 year olds with an Associate Degree, or better, in various countries. The results are a bit surprising: there are four countries with over 50% rates, Korea, Canada, the Russian Federation (!), and Japan. There are eleven countries with rates higher than the U.S.; at about 41%, we’re comparable with Israel, France, and Sweden, and (again surprising), far ahead of Germany (24%). Expand the view from 25-35 to 25-64, and the results change a lot: the U.S. is fourth on the list with only Russia above the 50% mark–so it’s reasonable to assume that Korea, Canada and Japan have made great strides during the past few years, but the U.S. has not. Dig deeper and the reasons become clear: the white population seems to be twice as likely to hold a degree than the Latino population, which is growing quickly in the U.S.

Dig deeper and the situation becomes even more complicated.

So, what have I learned in my late night exploration of educational statistics?

1. Assuming our economy can provide the necessary jobs, we should probably set a 50% goal for college graduation. Assuming current trends continue, we will reach that figure within the next 10 or 20 years.

2. Unlike others, I don’t feel that the U.S. must lead in every category. We’re within a reasonable range among comparable nations, and that’s a good starting point.

3. The high school drop-out rate is alarming, both for the individuals involved and for the development of our society. The reasons why we don’t achieve a high school graduation rate are many: inadequate schools, old-fashioned ideas, insufficient budgets, inadequate family and community support for families, poor preparation in key skills necessary for high school success, peer pressure involving gangs, guns, violence, drugs, limited options, and so on.

No, this post does not end with a solid solution or even a rational recommendation. I’m just taking notes on stats that seem important, and devoting part of my day to understanding the bounds of the issue. I hope you will, too.


High school rates:

History of pre-K through grade 12 enrollment, plus higher education:

Lots more good stuff here (the source of the quote, too):

As always, Wikipedia offers abundant information, this time with lots of charts and graphs:

College Board stats from: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2010


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