Friday, April 18, 2014

A college "death spiral" could breathe new life into education

Small U.S. Colleges Battle Death Spiral as Enrollment Drops

“What we’re concerned about is the death spiral -- this continuing downward momentum for some institutions,” said Susan Fitzgerald, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service in New York. “We will see more closures than in the past.”

Moody’s, which rates more than 500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities, downgraded an average of 28 institutions annually in the five years through 2013, more than double the average of 12 in the prior five-year period.

Dozens of schools have seen drops of more than 10 percent in enrollment, according to Moody’s. As faculty and staff have been cut and programs closed, some students have faced a choice between transferring or finishing degrees that may have diminished value.

Such a death spiral* would be wel-diddly-come. No reason for kids to accrue farcical debt attaining unremunerative liberal arts degrees. The education bubble, which is even more sacrosanct and absurd than the "American dream of owning a home," continues to attract scrutiny, and it's about time. Predictably, all of the "solutions" being offered are written in 19-year-old girl speak.

We keep hearing we have do something about the cost of education, but never examine the factors behind the cost: government backstopping student loan debt* and the absurd level of demand created by bamboozling everyone to pursue college (regardless of whether they're qualified).

We keep hearing that we need to "close the skills gap," that we need to "educate our young folks to get those high-skill, high-paying jobs," but say nothing about whether an innate skills gap - in our age number crunching smarts engender far more opportunities than verbal smarts - can be bridged by throwing more money at the problem (spoiler alert: it can't). A kid who isn't wired to handle algebra isn't going to become an engineer no matter how many shiny iPads you bequeath to him. Speaking of money and education, America spends more on education than anyone, and well, you've see the results.

In the meantime, while pundits and hollow-eyed pig-men pat themselves on the back for offering useless and pandering prescriptions, we continue encouraging EVERYONE, qualified or not, to attend college and accumulate more debt they'll never repay. It's like Nero writing a syllabus as Rome University burns.

INCOME INEQUALITY TALK IS CURRENTLY ALL THE RAGE, and "closing the skills gap" through "education" comes up constantly when the matter is discussed. With apologies to those who were born yesterday: more "education" isn't going to solve "income inequality." We live in the era of the Long Tail; the winners are going to keep winning bigger and the losers are going to keep losing bigger. This skew is a byproduct of the very technology politicians/pundits are pretending every kid can learn to harness. Automation, which is being accelerated by those with number crunching skills, is leaving those without similar cognitive tools in an even deeper hole. And automation isn't the only radical change being catalyzed by technology; like I've written about before, a great education didn't shield American engineers from the outsourcing revolution. So much for a heady technology education being a turnkey answer to the jobs crisis.

Looking back on my teen years, one thing that stands out in my mind is the HUGE stigma that was attached to vocational school (called VoTech where I lived). When I was in middle and high school there were teachers who tried to scare us by saying if we didn't get it together we'd end up going to VoTech. At the time I joked about VoTech too. Now I look back and realize what a dope I was: what was so wrong with VoTech? Many kids would have been better off attending VoTech to become an employable electrician or auto body worker than trying to attend a college they didn't belong in. How many of them dabbled in community college and junior college (neither institution is free, by the way) for years before finally giving up without earning a degree? How many settled into waitressing jobs because their college difficulties made them think there was no hope? Meanwhile they might have been mechanically inclined and could have established solid careers as tradesmen.

And how many kids scraped by, barely managing to get a degree in something soft like sociology, and rang up all that debt to acquire a degree that at best set them up to be teachers? The line to become a full-time liberal arts teacher is much longer than the line to become a full-time electrician.

With all this talk of self-esteem, think of how much better the self-esteem of those kids would have been being surrounding by other VoTech students rather than struggling like mad in Algebra II and becoming convinced they were stupid and doomed.

Electricians and carpenters aren't being outsourced. Encouraging kids who can't do algebra to focus on college and Silicon Valley-type jobs is putting them on a kamikaze career path. They aren't going to Silicon Valley, but with the right encouragement they could fix Silicon Valley's toilets for a very respectable wage.

Education won't solve income inequality. Piling up student loan debt for useless degrees only furthers it.

*This very death spiral is going to leave even more verbal intellectuals (would-be humanities professors) out of work and out of luck.

*The government backstop of mortgage debt helped foster the housing bubble.


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