Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Keeping College from Becoming a Ripoff

When I made my decisions on what I wanted to be and where I would go to school back in the early 70s, my family's modest finances made me determined to be as frugal and practical as possible. Although I had a number of interests, my aptitude in math and science (especially electricity) suggested that I become an electrical engineer, a job that paid well and would give me reasonable job prospects.

Then it was a choice of college. Deciding to stay local to be able to commute and thus save money on room and board, my choices were between a good public university, Pitt, and Carnegie-Mellon, a private university renowned for its engineering school.

But Carnegie-Mellon costed three times as much and I didn’t believe it would provide an education that was three times better. So rather than apply someplace our family couldn't afford, I foolishly put all my eggs in one basket at Pitt. Fortunately, Pitt accepted me. And since I still commuted from home, I was able to find an evening and weekend job in a restaurant near home that allowed me to pay my own tuition in full. (Today with the price of tuition skyrocketing, minimum wage jobs do not pay enough to do this anymore.)

So what was the result of all of this? I received an education that was adequate but was decidedly more impersonal due to the large size of the school. And without experiencing any of campus life by living there, my social life was frankly not much of a life at all.

But I got through it all and although I took several months after graduation to find my first professional job, it happened and I then started to earn a comfortable living – all without any college debt to worry about. This all worked perfectly until my engineering job was eliminated in my late 40s. I then discovered that those over 50 with college educations nowadays are not in demand to say the least. So although my college education is now useless in finding work, it served me well for much of my adult life.

One thing I noticed back in the times when employment prospects were more normal was that many of my colleagues did not have engineering degrees like I did. Instead of learning a trade like I did in engineering school, there were many others who graduated with an assortment of liberal arts degrees. But that was OK. At that time, a prospective employer often used a college degree to judge whether somebody had enough brainpower to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the company. If they were smart enough, they could be then be trained in whatever specialized work the company needed. It all worked quite well – but that was then.

In a previous posting,
Our Jobs Crisis, I argue that unlike previous downturns that were cyclical in nature, this one is structural in which many of the jobs we have lost through outsourcing and other overseas competition may likely never come back. Even more alarming, many of these lost jobs have been in college educated professions like engineering and even law.

In my time, going to college with the expectation of using that diploma as an entry into the middle class was a reasonable one. But today, many college graduates who have borrowed heavily to get that diploma (especially to go to that prestigious private school) have encountered a nightmare where their degree is no longer in demand while at the same time they are expected to start paying off their debt – which cannot usually be discharged through bankruptcy.

While many of the degrees they offer may no longer have as much economic value in the workplace as before, schools that make money from student tuition have no real incentive to warn prospective students about all of this. Jack Kelly in a recent op-ed,
The costly college scam, summed it up this way.

The biggest consumer ripoff in America today is a college education.

The scam exists for the benefit of college teachers and administrators who make a comfortable living ripping off the gullible. If only people capable of doing college work were admitted to college, and only courses with academic value were offered, there would be fewer colleges and far fewer faculty.

But in addition to the traditional colleges, the for-profit education and career training industry has grown explosively in no small part due to the GI Bill which pays for veterans’ education. This worked well for our veterans after World War II when the economy was rapidly expanding, but in today’s economy with its chronic shortage of jobs, it appears that the schools are reaping all of the benefits far more than the students which has resulted in a Senate investigation of industry practices.

A wide-ranging examination of for-profit colleges by the U.S. Senate has homed in on how the schools recruit and educate veterans -- a lucrative source of federal funds for [Pittsburgh]-based Education Management Corp.

From August 2009 to July 2010, EDMC -- which runs the Art Institutes, Argosy University, South University and Brown Mackie College -- took in about $60.5 million from the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. According to data compiled by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, EDMC was the third largest recipient of such funds in that span, behind Apollo Group Inc. -- which runs the University of Phoenix -- and ITT Technical Institute.

The HELP Committee, led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has been holding hearings on the practices of for-profit schools -- exposing aggressive and sometimes fraudulent recruiting tactics, and the high debt loads and failure rates of their students.

So am I saying that we should all give up on higher education and accept a career that pays little more than minimum wage? Hardly. It is marketable knowledge and skills that allow some to command a higher wage than others.

For those who desire it and are fit for a white collar occupation, college is certainly worth considering. But with the selective job market we now have, it is crucial to research up front how present graduates in a certain field are doing before investing the considerable amount of time and money to obtain a particular degree. While college does have certain benefits outside of career training, the expense also has to justify itself in the form of increased income after graduation. And white collar occupations are far from immune to outsourcing; in fact some of them have been hit especially hard in recent times.

Is a private college really worth all of the extra expense (and debt) over a publicly supported one? As I noted earlier, my educational experience in a large public university like Pitt was a somewhat impersonal one. Private schools offer smaller class sizes and more personal attention. But the same can be said for the smaller branch campuses of public universities like Pitt. In addition, community colleges are a great value and worth considering for a year or two before transferring to a 4 year college.

Of course, not everybody is cut out for college or a white collar career.
Learning a trade that is in demand can provide just as much pay and satisfaction as many white collar careers. With the many unemployed sitting at home watching TV, commercials for different training institutes are blanketing the airwaves. But there is always the disclaimer in the fine print that employment and salary are not guaranteed. Do these places really enable their students to find jobs as advertised? Or do they leave their graduates high and dry with little more than a pile of debt to deal with? It takes some research up front to find this out – preferably by talking to previous grads of these institutions.

So although college can be a ripoff, it doesn’t have to be. When dealing with anybody who asks us to part with some of our money, we have the responsibility to be informed consumers – and education is no exception!

Post Script - January 12, 2011
Being an informed consumer is especially difficult when the schools who are supposed to be providing objective information on the employment prospects of its graduates resort to fudging their figures or are outright lying about them.

A recent NYT article Is Law School a Losing Game? is about the rude awakening many recent law school graduates have received when they discovered that the expensive degree they borrowed money to earn isn't yielding any job offers in the field despite law schools encouraging even more students to enroll.
[Michael] Wallerstein, who can’t afford to pay down interest and thus watches the outstanding loan balance grow, is in roughly the same financial hell as people who bought more home than they could afford during the real estate boom. But creditors can’t foreclose on him because he didn’t spend the money on a house.

He spent it on a law degree. And from every angle, this now looks like a catastrophic investment.

Well, every angle except one: the view from law schools. To judge from data that law schools collect, and which is published in the closely parsed U.S. News and World Report annual rankings, the prospects of young doctors of jurisprudence are downright rosy.

In reality, and based on every other source of information, Mr. Wallerstein and a generation of J.D.’s face the grimmest job market in decades.
This article is a 'must read' for anybody studying for or contemplating a legal career.

To get a perspective from someone on the street, I forwarded a link to the article to a friend of mine who is a lawyer to get some feedback. Her response below is pretty self-explantory.
It's very sobering, but not a surprise, we have usually have at least 2 unemployed attorneys volunteering for us to get experience, and our youngest attorneys have loan balances close to $200,000. (our starting salary is less than $40,000). I have no idea why anyone still thinks law school is a good idea.

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