Jan 11, 2011

Is College a Ticket to Success?

A piece posted today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, New Evidence That College is a Risky Investment, argues quite rightly that merely choosing to attend college does not translate into the likely successful life our culture unfortunately still promises to prospective students.  It is often overlooked -- and Richard Vedder is doing a service to point out -- that if a student does not actually graduate with a degree, the better-paying job opportunities will remain inaccessible for him or her, and they will likely accrue still-harder-to-pay debt in the process.
I have been saying for years that there is a huge risk that new college entrants will drop out, and that published academic studies usually implicitly look at those who graduate, ignoring a roughly equal number who fail to graduate from college in a timely manner. That is the huge flaw in the Does College Pay? studies annually produced by Sandy Baum for the College Board.

 An Ethical Issue?

The latest four-year graduation rate for my institution, a low-tier HBCU, is in the single digits, and even the 6-year figures are not particularly promising (in fact the UNC system as a whole, with its target goals of 30 % four-year graduation and 50% six-year seems willing to accept that half of the students who enroll do not graduate even after 6 years).  Our provost has stressed some of the ethical implications of this, arguing that it is our duty to change these rates, to do everything possible to assure "student success."

My view is that while all of this may be true, it does not go far enough.  There's a fundamental disconnect here, a set of failures of practical reasoning -- failures on the part of those examining the situation and taking stands on whether a college education is a good investment.  Those who are failing here include not only educators but also students.  In fact, I'd extend it to anyone who blithely passes on the dangerous nostrum that college per se is the ticket to a better life.  I'd extend it even further to those who with somewhat more sophistication claim that getting a college education, walking across the stage, and entering the workplace diploma in hand makes it likely one will get a good, well-paying job and thus provide a component of the good life in America. Those claims might have been true at one time, but they are no longer.

What matters today in our present circumstances is not simply whether one went to college, or even whether one graduated, but whether one acquired and developed the knowledge, skills, habits, and attitudes employers demand of employees.  Those are what a college diploma promises, but does not reliably deliver.  That is because we are graduating students who lack these acquisitions and dispositions.  Our curricula promise to introduce and inculcate, to deepen and reinforce these.  And, sometimes that does happen.  But, all to often it does not.  Why that is is a broad and complex problem, and I won't pretend to provide a full analysis here, let alone a solution (I'll confess that I haven't got one that would be politically palatable).  But what I will do is outline an argument, a line of practical reasoning through which I lead all of the students in my Critical Thinking classes, introducing the majority of them to thinking rigorously about this for the first (and all too often only) time in their college career.

An Exercise in Critical Thinking

I start by asking them:  Why are you here?  Why are you taking this class?  Usually there's silence for a few minutes (itself a sign of the basic attitude of passivity our students need to undo and progressively replace with habits of active and engaged thinking).

This class is required. . . .  We have to take it. . . . My adviser made me take it. . .   -- eventually someone says: It's required for graduation.  Now we're gaining some traction.  I go to the chalkboard and draw the first two parts of a what will be a diagram depicting a means-ends analysis:  Critical Thinking on the left, an arrow drawn rightward, then Graduating College.

So, why do you want to graduate college then?  I ask them.  To impress your friends and families?  Maybe you want to get an education for its own sake?  I draw another arrow rightward.

They are quicker to reply now, warmed up perhaps, some of them starting to see where this is going.  So I can get a good job.  I write Good Job right of the last arrow.

That opens up further questions:  What's a good job? What kind of jobs are you going to get?  This is the heartbreaking part.  Some of them have no idea at all, just some rosy, fuzzy notion that something good is assuredly waiting for them.  Others rattle off jobs far beyond their likely qualifications.  Some others are going to start their own businesses.

I don't discourage them -- they'll get enough of that down the line -- instead I lay on praise mixed with facts about what that course will require, for instance:  Law school!  That is excellent!  You'll want to work very hard in this class then, since understanding arguments inside and out is something a lawyer has to be able to do in their sleep.  I'd suggest also doing all of the formal logic chapters we won't get to in this class. If you keep that up for the next several years, that'll help you on the LSAT.

Here we get to the crux.  The diagram replicates their reasoning process, leading by irrevocable arrows from my Critical Thinking class to getting the Good Job.  They have been led through a process of practical reasoning, one which if only implicitly, they have already carried out.  I stop to stress the fact that we could in fact produce an argument for why a student has to pass my Critical Thinking class, and we do so:
If I want a Good Job, I have to graduate from College.
If I want to graduate from College, I have to pass Critical Thinking.
I do want a Good Job.
Therefore, I have to pass Critical Thinking
It sounds pretty good.  But, this is in fact a bad argument.  It's not bad because there is something wrong with its structure.  Nor are the premises false.  It is bad in a different, more contextual, higher-order way, because other important and relevant considerations are left out -- something key to good practical reasoning.  There's two different dimensions to what missing.  One is that things work differently, the world and its workings are structured differently than how the students have imagined it so far.  The other is that students are lacking information, and don't even realize that they are missing anything.

Let's look at the missing reasoning first.  

Who decides whether you get the good job?  I ask.  It's not automatic, right?  Who's it up to?  The employer, they realize. And why does that employer hire someone?   What do they want from them?  This puzzles them at first, and with prodding their answers get more refined.  To do the job.  To do the job well.  To do the job as well as or better than the other candidates.

What does that take?  I then query.  What do you actually have to have to do the job well?  Sometimes they are stumped, sometimes someone says it:  The knowledge and skills the job requires

And that, I tell them, is what a college degree is supposed to mean.  While you are in college, in every single class you take, you are supposed to be applying yourself, doing all the homework, putting in the time studying, learning, practicing, getting better and better.  If all you are doing is studying enough to pass a test, skating by with C work, are you going to actually have those skills the employer is looking for?

I write Developing CT Skills below Critical Thinking, then Possesses Skills below Graduating College, then Employer Wants Skills below Good Job

I draw a new set of arrows connecting them parallel to the first set.  Then I erase the first set, and I tell them:  Anyone who is telling you that if you go to college, or you graduate from college, you will get a good job is either ignorant or lying to you.  Only if you develop the skills employers want do you even have a shot at the good job you want.

Now, we turn to the information they lack.  

What don't our students know that they don't know?  With respect to workplace success and college education, they are blissfully and dangerously unaware of three matters:  the stated needs and wants of employers; the real demands of jobs college is supposed to prepare them for; and the level of competition that they will face.

One can find myriad lists online providing what employers are looking for in college graduates.  They vary of course, but most consistently appearing on those lists are four main skills or dispositions.  Employers want college graduates to be able to write effectively, to have Critical Thinking skills (sometimes other terms are used), perseverance in work (often using the term "work ethic"), and they want honesty and other "ethical" behavior.  Why are these in such high demand?  Not least because for two generations, these are in short supply among college graduates.  And that means one can get through college and receive a degree without developing these vital traits.  Curricula can be set up to provide opportunities for students to develop these.  Some schools even have the luxury of being able to impose a curriculum where a student cannot graduate without these.  Ultimately, however, it rests on the student to develop these desired traits, in decisions made over and over again throughout their college career.  These are decisions which are the result of good or bad practical reasoning on the part of the student.

The "good jobs" which college is supposed to lead to demand those skills and dispositions (and many more), traits which cannot be successfully faked for long.  They do so because of the changes that have taken place in our economic environment.  Any job which can be done without considerable thought and effort, without initiative and perseverance, is not likely to pay well, and can be replaced by cheaper outsourced foreign labor or even by some electronic means.  The "good jobs" college is supposed to open the door to are demanding, and those doors will slam closed to those who after four (or more likely six) years have not made themselves into the kinds of employees that can measure up and deliver consistently.

When I ask:  if you just do C-level work, do you think an employer will want to hire you for the kind of good job you want?  far too many of my students say Yes.  They don't know yet that we have a glut of college graduates in the workplace, that right now and in the foreseeable future it is a buyer's market.  They don't grasp that they will have to compete for the same jobs with American students from better-pedigreed schools, who possess advantages of contacts, networking, name-recognition, and who have been at least exposed to a more demanding curriculum.  They also don't realize that they will face foreign competition from countries and cultures where K-12 education is much more rigorous, much higher-stakes, and for the present much  more effective than non-elite K-12 schooling here.

Unless our graduates aim and consistently work to acquire the skills, knowledge, attitudes, habits employers and the jobs they offer require, college is a very risky gamble indeed.  Whether any individual student does so is ultimately a matter of choice, the exercise of their free faculty of will in accordance with their practical reasoning.  We can supply structure, inducements, models, encouragement -- and in fact, we do.  But even more than that, we have to wean them away from pleasant illusions, pernicious assumptions, so they can better reason out their life paths and daily decisions.