Archive for December 29, 2010

What’s College good for, anyway?

Stuck inside in the New York snowstorm, our new Dean, Zvi Galil, is doing lots of reading and sending links out to the faculty.  They make for a pretty depressing view of the high costs of higher education and how little society is getting for that cost.

Let’s start with Jonathan Cole’s blog, which agrees with Rich DeMillo that research costs universities much more than it brings in:

When the federal government entered into an informal contract with universities after World War II to outsource our national research effort to the universities, it agreed to cover the full overhead costs of that research. Overhead consists of the cost of paying for laboratory facilities and the work at the university that is directly linked to the government sponsored research. Under Congressional pressure, the idea of full-cost reimbursement was violated almost before the principle was adopted. Today, the government negotiates reimbursement rates for research conducted at university laboratories.3 Government auditors “live” at the universities and their hands are held by a group of administrative personnel whose specialty is to negotiate indirect cost rates on government contracts and grants. I don’t know of any university today that receives close to full-cost reimbursement for government-sponsored research – some of which leads to discoveries that have completely altered out lives. So, contrary to widespread belief, the research enterprise actually costs more money than it generates at major universities. The result is that either through gifts to the university or through tuition, research is being subsidized at these great universities. It may be what makes great universities preeminent but it is not contributing to a positive bottom line.

So why should so many universities engage in research? One answer is graduate education. Research is how we train new PhD’s. The Economist this week speaks to how a PhD is good for the University but not for the student:

PhD graduates do at least earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree. A study in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management by Bernard Casey shows that British men with a bachelor’s degree earn 14% more than those who could have gone to university but chose not to. The earnings premium for a PhD is 26%. But the premium for a master’s degree, which can be accomplished in as little as one year, is almost as high, at 23%. In some subjects the premium for a PhD vanishes entirely. PhDs in maths and computing, social sciences and languages earn no more than those with master’s degrees. The premium for a PhD is actually smaller than for a master’s degree in engineering and technology, architecture and education. Only in medicine, other sciences, and business and financial studies is it high enough to be worthwhile. Over all subjects, a PhD commands only a 3% premium over a master’s degree.

So, Universities cost a lot, in part because tuition and state dollars are subsidizing research, in order to produce PhD’s, which is probably not a great choice for the individual. At least we’re doing well by the undergrads, right? According to Jack Kelly, most of the undergrads shouldn’t be there and aren’t going to get their money’s worth.

About 70 percent of high school graduates start college, but barely half earn a degree within the traditional four years. And many who do get a degree only can find jobs for which college is not necessary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 49.37 million college graduates who had jobs in 2008, 17.4 million were working in occupations requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.

For instance, 29.8 percent of flight attendants had college degrees. So did 24.5 percent of retail salespersons, 17.4 percent of bellhops, 16.6 percent of secretaries,15.2 percent of taxi drivers, and 13.9 percent of mail carriers.

The proportion of Americans who attend college has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. But, according to Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, 60 percent of the increase since 1992 worked in low skill jobs, some of which don’t even require a high school diploma.

This is “the single most scandalous statistic in higher education,” Dr. Vedder said.

I sympathize with the concerns of the critics. As a professor at a research-intensive university, there are enormous pressures to take on more and more research, through graduate students, research scientists, and post-docs. I am expected to play more of a manager role, and I am given a light teaching load so that I can focus on building that research portfolio. My personal preference is to do research more hands-on, and I like teaching very much, especially with classes smaller than 50. I expect that many professors would like to focus more on their teaching with small classes, and to focus on a small number of research projects. But that’s not how the economics work out for higher education today.  As the murmur to reform higher education grows to a roar, maybe those economics will be changing.

December 29, 2010 at 7:24 am 16 comments


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