Tuesday, June 5, 2012

More on metrics: what about college?

After my post yesterday on metrics, the AVI left a good comment, and then wrote his own follow up post using  sports as an example.  It's worth a read.

I've been thinking more about metrics today, and wondering about other areas where there's no consensus on outcomes.  Before I get in to the rest of my thoughts, I wanted to mention a quick anecdote I once heard a pastor give.

Back when he was in high school, this man's class had been handed a poll.  In it, they were asked what they most wanted to be in life:  rich, successful in their field, famous, successful in love, well traveled or happy.  According to him, when the teacher wrote the results on the board, he was the only one who had put "happy".  As he discussed this with his classmates afterwards, he realized this was because they all had so closely associated happiness with one of the other metrics that it had never occurred to them that checking off "rich" might not be the same thing as checking off "happy".

This occurs to me as a common mistake with metrics....we start associating two traits so closely that we forget they do not actually have to coexist.

This brings me to college.

In the student loan debates, there's been much wailing over how much debt undergraduates are taking on, while the ability to obtain salaries that enable repayment has decreased.  In reading these articles, one would be left with the impression that we had some sort of national consensus on what the point of college actually is: to get a good job.

This is wrong.

According to the Pew Research Center:
Just under half of the public (47%) says the main purpose of a college education is to teach work-related skills and knowledge, while 39% say it is to help a student grow personally and intellectually; the remainder volunteer that both missions are equally important. College graduates place more emphasis on intellectual growth; those who are not college graduates place more emphasis on career preparation.

Even college presidents don't agree on what they're trying to do:
(College) Presidents are evenly divided about the main role colleges play in students’ lives: Half say it is to help them mature and grow intellectually, while 48% say it is to provide skills, knowledge and training to help them succeed in the working world. Most heads of four-year colleges and universities emphasize the former; most heads of two-year and for-profit schools emphasize the latter.
So half of the people heading up colleges never thought that their primary goal would be to get kids good jobs, and 40% of the public didn't prioritize getting a good job.  Loans are generally based on an ability to repay, but a good chunk of those taking out the loans weren't focused on ability to repay when they signed on.

My guess is that this is not what actually went through these people's heads, at least not in those words.  My guess is that maturing and intellectual growth is so conflated with being qualified for a good job that it's unfathomable to some people that they're not the same thing.

Maybe they should start asking this on student loan applications.  I certainly think it should be at least be part of the conversation.


  1. The culture of an earlier generation did not separate those two very clearly. Those who went to college rather assumed that they would take "their place" in the world after graduation and become one of the greater or lesser rulers. Those who had studied job-oriented things were more likely to be among the greater rulers, those taking humanities expected to be content being minor rulers.

    That they might be no rulers at all did not really enter in to their thinking. More than one writer has suggested that much of the Occupy movement is composed of young people who expected to be minor rulers, thought that was damned decent and noble and noncompetitive of them compared to their more aggressive classmates, now resentful that they do not actually belong to the ruling class at all, even though they have similarity with the New Class, the nomenklatura.

  2. Job-oriented things like engineering or nursing? They don't get to be rulers--the Occupy crowd seems to expect them to be silent servants.

    Job-oriented like MBA or lawyer? Yep, they get a shot at being the bigger rulers.

    1. Ha! My sister is 3 years in to a nursing degree, and is constantly griping that her liberal arts friends don't get why she has to study so much. She's had clinicals and classes this year, and they pretty much think she's being neurotic when she studies on weekends (weekends are for fun!)

      I give her sympathy, but I've forewarned her that not only will she have to watch them whine every time they're actually required to do a paper, but she'll also then put up with a lifetime of whining about how underpaid they are.

      Not that I've had an experience with this, no not at all.

  3. "(College) Presidents are evenly divided about the main role colleges play in students’ lives: Half say it is to help them mature and grow intellectually." That ends up sounding like a rather vague, hard-to-neasure, don't blame me if they're underperformers after they graduate excuse. But can you blame college presidents if there are more students clamoring to get in to their doors than can be accepted - many waving cash or at least the ability to secure necessary loans? When you strip everything else away, at its core higher ed is a business. We deify it much too much.

    1. I agree....which is why the idea of having to announce your intentions on loan applications was sort of fascinating to me.

      I think the banks should know if paying that loan back is your focus or an afterthought.

  4. james, that was my thought. Engineers and nurses do hit the edges of being minor rulers - people respect them and ask their opinions, they can get promoted if they seek that. But there are other positions, in insurance, or civil service, or finance, or education, or publishing, where history or English majors used to expect to get hired into at some management-trainee level and move up. That still happens, but not as reliably.

    1. hey, history majors can do just fine in insurance!