Fran Stewart

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Cheating in the Rankings

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Claremont McKenna College admitted that it had inflated the SAT scores of it freshman class and had been engaging in such highbrow deception since 2005. Apparently, the small, elite liberal arts college didn’t have enough going for it already to entice top students to its 25-acre campus in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California. Scenic location, reputation as the city of “trees and Ph.Ds” and respectable scores just weren’t enough to push the school into the Top 10 national liberal arts colleges on the annual ranking by U.S. News & World Report. Claremont McKenna, which comes with a tuition sticker price of more than $42,000, continues to occupy the No. 9 spot on the U.S. News 2012 ranking, but the newsmagazine’s online description of the school now carries a disclaimer: “Claremont McKenna College reported test score data inaccurately.” Think of that as the higher ed equivalent of the sports asterisk denoting a tainted record.

The Los Angeles Times upbraided the school in an editorial: “It is bad enough when teachers cheat on tests, but when the cheating is carried out at a college — supposedly an unimpeachable bastion of the disinterested pursuit of pure truth — the notion of honor seems fragile and fleeting indeed.” The incident with Claremont McKenna highlights the all-too-common issue of academic cheating. (In January, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was seeking ideas from the public about improving the integrity of standardized testing.) But it also calls into question the value and reliability of college rankings. Parents and students have come to treat these annual “best” lists as unassailable bibles of academic merit. Schools feel pressure to improve their rankings, often by being selective in how they report their scores. Perhaps the result of this dishonesty in the ranks will be an honest realization of the shortcomings of these college rankings. For more on that, check out this fine New Yorker article by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell to better understand what college rankings really tell us.                    

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Students: Think strategically about which college to attend, which degree to pursue

The Plain Dealer newspaper in Cleveland asked Alice and me to contribute an opinion article for a series it was running on the value of a college education. Also featured were the views of Michael Schwartz, the former president of both Cleveland State and Kent State universities, and Richard Vedders, an emeritus professor of economics at Ohio University who now runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C. Schwartz said college is about more than just a paycheck and helps people find “the real meaning in life’s journey.” Vedders believes the nation overinvests in four-year college degrees and said only about one-third of graduating seniors should go on to college, referring to the ones whose high school records indicate they have the best chance to succeed.

This “Is College Worth It?” debate that is raging this year reminds me a little of those classic “tastes great, less filling” beer commercials. Schwartz is right about college imparting  benefits beyond just economic ones, and Vedders is right about college not profiting all students. This has been the case for quite some time.

The more helpful question is, What can students DO to make their educational investment pay off for them?

You can visit the Plain Dealer’s website to read the entire series. The text of our commentary is below:

“Is college worth it? With jobs drying up and Mom and Dad raiding their
retirement fund to pay Junior’s tuition, it’s not surprising that the value of a
college degree would be called into question. For good reason: Traditional ways
of thinking about the college investment don’t pay off for large numbers of
students and their families.

Here’s a typical college choice scenario: Junior finds a pricey college that
he absolutely must attend because of its prestige, its sports traditions, its
pretty co-eds or its party atmosphere. Mom and Dad pay as much as they can, and
Junior borrows enough to pay the rest (sometimes enough to buy a small house).
Upon graduation, Junior’s degree in English literature lands him a job in fast
food and a starting salary nowhere near what he needs to repay his loans.

But what if Junior had opted for a less expensive college? What if he had
chosen a different degree? Sure, he would have to give up some of what he
wanted, but such trade-offs might save him from being in need of a good job and
debt relief later in life.

Here’s the hard truth: For far too many students, college isn’t “worth it”
largely because of the choices they make about which college to attend, what
degree to pursue and how to invest time spent on campus. Instead, they need to
think strategically about how to improve their marketability and avoid paying
more than their degree is worth.

Colleges and universities are basically in the business of knowledge
creation. For a fee (often in the tens of thousands of dollars), they will share
that knowledge with others. While true academics see all knowledge as valuable,
the marketplace has a different point of view. What universities don’t like to
admit is that, in a knowledge economy, some knowledge is more valuable than
other knowledge.

The broad economy has less demand for experts on the writings of Jane Austen
than it has for software engineers and nurses. Students who want to raise the
market value of their college degree should choose a knowledge area that has
stable or growing demand. That doesn’t mean they have to give up their passion
for Jane Austen; they just have to give up on the notion that such expertise
will be generously rewarded in the marketplace.

Though college can be a life-changing experience, for the vast majority of
students who head off to college each year, earning a bachelor’s degree is about
getting a job. Such bluntness may offend those who celebrate college as a
sanctuary for personal growth. But young adults increasingly need a degree
simply to access today’s job market.

What many students don’t realize is that their personal preparation for the
job market requires more than just the degree. Meeting people in the field,
joining organizations, making connections and pursuing internships are ways to
enhance marketability. Students who choose to make the most of their time on
campus — both in and out of the classroom — are usually the ones who see the
greatest return on their educational investment.

Students who choose to minimize costs will also see greater return. Yes, the
cost of college has skyrocketed over the past three decades. The published price
for tuition and fees at many schools now hovers around $40,000 per year. Yet,
many schools charge substantially less and still provide excellent workforce
preparation. Out in the job market, graduates with similar degrees and abilities
are likely to receive similar pay, whether they spent (or borrowed) $40,000 on
their education or $140,000. That means the ones who choose to spend and borrow
less are likely to get more economic value out of their college degree.

Even families who have a large pot of money put aside to spend on high-priced
schools should be wary of over-investing. If the economic events of the past
three years teach anything, it’s that circumstances can change quickly and
dramatically. A job loss, a health crisis, a stock market crash may suddenly
turn once-manageable tuition payments into overwhelming family burdens.

Beyond costs and majors, getting a good return on the college investment
requires that students finish what they start. Students who fail to graduate –
and nearly half don’t earn that degree — receive little payback on their
investment of time and money. Yes, there are some celebrated stories of
billionaire dropouts, but, in general, students see little economic benefit for
‘some college.’ It’s the degree that has market value, not the 115 credit hours
and six years of study.

Is college worth it? Yes. But families have to do their part. Parents and
students must resist the hype and the emotion and see the college decision for
what it is — a family financial investment in the success of the next
generation. A marketable major, deliberate attention to professional
development, a realistic attitude toward costs and debt, and a commitment to
completion go a long way toward making college pay.”

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Out-of-Class Learning Boosts Marketability

If college were just about getting a degree, success in the “real world” would be a lot easier than it is. Many students don’t realize that credit hours and curriculum guides only provide the baseline for career success. Savvy students who take advantage of learning opportunities outside the college classroom are the ones who end up with an edge in the marketplace.

Here are ideas for how you can make the most of your time − in and out of class:

  • Expand your network.  You may Facebook regularly and actively tweet, but you will need a different kind of network after college. If you are a business student, you have it easy.  You will have many opportunities to interact with corporate recruiters who visit campus.  But if you are, say, a theater major, your future success depends on your willingness to get out and meet people in your field. Professional networking is even more critical − and more challenging − if you’re, say , an English Lit major. Given that there aren’t a lot of jobs these days that require expertise in dead poets,  you will need to explore various venues and organizations to see how your skills match the needs of the marketplace.  Volunteer work may be the way to start your network.  Or you can look for professional organizations that meet locally. The key is: Get  out there and get connected!
  • Work on your face- to-face skills. Texting and tweeting may be popular ways of communicating among your peers, but they are not the best tools for accomplishing important tasks. Technology can make some interactions easier, but there will be times when you have to tackle projects face to face.  Getting people to work together successfully is a skill that takes practice. Lucky for you, college offers plenty of opportunities to practice − through class projects, volunteer efforts or sorority activities. And the more you practice, the better off you’ll be when it comes time to look for a job. When employers say they want workers with good communication skills, they usually are not talking about hiring good spellers. They want people who can work with others, share ideas, provide leadership − and get things done.
  • Learn to make knowledge connections.  There are likely thousands of other young people earning the same degree you are and competing for a limited number of job opportunities.  What makes you stand out?  If you limit your college learning to what is taught in the classroom or in your degree program, you will just be like everyone else.  What employers look for are people who can combine different pieces of knowledge in innovative ways.  Look for opportunities to connect your academic program to other knowledge areas and skills. Be original, be innovative and be creative.  The market rewards NEW knowledge, not common knowledge.

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Stretched Thin

The Sunday Business section of the New York Times had an interesting but bleak story about the growing number of “Job Jugglers.” People, especially young adults, are finding that it takes two, three, maybe even four or five jobs to make ends meet in today’s challenging economic environment. The curriculum specialist/online marketer/website creater/reality-show developer profiled found his workday filled from 7 a.m. to midnight. A young journalist took a job baby-sitting five nights a week. Workers trying to get ahead or get established have always worked long and hard, but many of these workers are simply trying to stay afloat. That’s because starting salaries are down for new college graduates, according to a recent study by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce
Development
at Rutgers University. Those who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2009 and 2010 earned $3,000 LESS per year than those who graduated, $27,000 is what new grads can expect, compared to $30,000 for those who graduated betwen 2006 and 2008. Here’s another shocker from the article: Nearly half of all college graduates held a job not requiring a bachelor’s degree. Add in a mound of college loan debt, and it’s clear that many grads may see little return on their education investment.

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What’s the Value of College?

Here’s another story questioning whether college is a good investment. This certainly is shaping up to be the summer (spring, actually) of discontent with higher education. NPR’s Scott Simon interviewed an education professor from UCLA during last week’s Weekend Edition. Essentially, the professor says there is more to higher education than simply the economic argument. Going to college is about more than simply boosting your earning power. Intellectual development is an important individual and societal benefit. However, the posted summary of the interview misses some key points. At the very beginning of the discussion, the professor notes that so much attention is on the price tag at exclusive, expensive schools. Students, he says, can find enriching experiences at more reasonably priced, lesser-known (often public) universities. At around the 4:18 mark, he notes that a traditional four-year bachelor’s degree isn’t right for everyone. Finally, we’re starting to see some progress in the “just go”/”don’t go” debate:

  • College was never designed to educate everyone.
  • Some sort of postsecondary education is critical to survive today’s rapidly changing job market — and a commitment to lifelong learning and retraining will be important for keeping pace.
  • A key way to improve the payback on the education investment is to minimize cost.
  • Intellectual development is a benefit, although a good bit of the personal development colleges claim occurs naturally as 18-year-olds become 22-year-olds.  

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Empowered by Debt?

Apparently, young people get a thrill out of debt. A recent study by Ohio State University researchers suggests that young adults feel a boost to their self-esteem when they pile on student loans and run up credit cards. Instead of being anxious and depressed, young adults feel “mastery.” The higher their debt loads, the more in control young people think they are of their lives. The researchers had assumed that borrowing for education would be viewed positively as an investment in the future, while charging on credit cards would be viewed negatively. But for young adults ages 18 to 27, all debt is good debt. That is, until they hit the ripe age of 28. At that point, the realities of the work world appear to take hold and these older and wiser adults start to worry about how much they owe. Here’s a good New York Times posting on the findings.

This study seems to fit with a recent local news story reporting the Class of 2011 as the most indebted college graduates ever. The reporter asked some graduating seniors from an area college about their student loans. Two of the three interviewed said they owed about $100,000! It was shocking how unconcerned they seemed about paying back such a huge amount. The study suggests that young people need better advice about the potentially life-limiting consequences of debt. Here’s one financial strategy tip: Before committing to a college, students should know how much their monthly payment on their loan obligation is likely to be. Visit www.makingcollegepay.com to learn more.

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Does College Really Pay Off?

Making College Pay coverIt’s graduation season. Congratulations to all those high school students and their parents who are commencing on a new stage of life. For the vast majority of graduating seniors, college will be that next step. But a number of recent articles and news reports have begun to question the value of a college degree. College costs have soared, student debts have mounted, yet average wages have barely risen. Students today are caught in a higher education paradox: A college degree is more important today than ever before for them to land a good-paying job, but a good payback on the time and money spent earning that degree is no longer the “sure bet” it once was. Check out http://www.makingcollegepay.com/Making_College_Pay_Chapter_1_Excerpt.pdf to learn more about the tough challenges today’s students face.

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