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College has been oversold (marginalrevolution.com)
299 points by yummyfajitas on Nov 2, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 239 comments



This is a consequence of the concerted effort by educators to increase post-secondary enrollment in the United States. Presumably, the students likely to enroll in a math or science program were (by and large) already heading to college 25 years ago.

As a metric for high schools, students enrolling in and graduating from a 4-year college is one of the most important numbers in the all-important school ranking. Students weak in the maths and sciences are encouraged to do just this: finish Algebra II, finish Chemistry, enroll in a liberal arts program, and choose a few "gimme" classes to cover whatever core curriculum the school requires. This makes the high schools look a lot better in their rankings, which is what matters to many superintendents and principals.

And then we get this.


I'm not sure it's all on the educators' side. It's also been pushed strongly by parents, because for the last few decades having a degree versus not having a degree has been the single best predictor of getting a white-collar job. Doesn't even matter what the degree is in; a 4-year degree qualifies you to get past the "need degree" HR screen in all sorts of generic office jobs, and the pay gap between "generic liberal arts degree" and "high-school diploma" has been large and growing since the 1950s.


Completely agreed. I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg, though: the push for more college-educated students, or the degree screen for jobs.


They are mutually re-enforcing. I suspect the degree screen for jobs came second, though.


Let me get this straight - you're arguing that increased college enrollment over the past 25 years is some sort of conspiracy perpetrated by secondary school administrators to better their own rankings?


Ever since society generally decided everyone needs to go to college, all sorts of little incentives have been adding up all over the place to create the effect of getting everyone in the system. That's not the single cause of everything, it's a snapshot of a broader trend that has affected the entire process from top to bottom. You could play the "zoom in on one aspect and mock the idea it could be the cause" all day long with all sorts of little causes... but that would just be a rhetorical game trying desperately to avoid the totality of the situation which is clear as day.


I think GP is arguing that the incentives are such that no conspiracy is needed.


Not at all. The increased college enrollment over the past 25 years is a nationwide push from the highest levels of government, academia, and business to get more students to enroll. Over the years, though, this goal has become somewhat divorced from its intentions.

I teach math (and used to teach CS before budget cuts) at a high school level. I've advised my mathematically weak, sometimes special needs students to do exactly what I mentioned in the first post.


Presumably, the students likely to enroll in a math or science program were (by and large) already heading to college 25 years ago.

This presumption is not supported by the data. Since 1970 the proportion of STEM degrees out of all degrees awarded has averaged 24% with a SD of `2.


Bereft of outside research, I was responding to the article, which stated, "Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant."


A liberal arts education is just as worth it today as it was 300 years ago. The current problem is that the cost of a liberal arts degree has spiraled out of control. There's no reason why an English or Philosophy degree needs to cost $15k a year.

Making everyone an engineer or scientist isn't the answer.


Making everyone get through 2 semesters of calculus and a real probability class would help both their well roundedness and employee-ability. The lack of numeracy and scientific background among otherwise well educated people is shameful.


Making everyone get through 2 semesters of calculus and a real probability class frankly sounds like a great idea for reforming high school.

Why they can't take kids through "high school" algebra in middle school and have them ready to take more serious math in high school is a mystery to me. From what I gather, a considerably accelerated math curriculum is common in other countries.

Is there any reason other than inertia that we can't do this?


I didn't get calculus until I went to a junior college. I think that JC cost me about $800 for a year -- living with parents helps.

After a year at the junior college (which I define by "They had a little IBM mainframe, and punch cards") I was a lot more ready for the Large Cow College (30K students, much beefier mainframe with actual terminals for post-first-year courses).

I'm convinced it's calculus that separates us from the lower primate kingdom. We should introduce it as early as we can.


I don't know why more people don't recommend community/junior colleges. You can cut the price of education almost in half if you start out 2 years at a JC.


I agree and disagree.

I spent a few years at a college before going to a university, and the (average) quality of teaching was actually higher at the college, for half the tuition. So insofar as post-secondary is about the stuff you learn in class, college is awesome. And I used to recommend it highly to any high-school-student who would listen.

However, there are some other benefits that are in short supply at colleges. Your peers will, on average, be less intelligent and less dedicated. And even if your peers are worth cultivating, you won't be living dorms, which means less parties (could be a pro or a con), but also means less close bonding with those same peers. Your instructors will not have openings in their labs where you can work for slave wages during the summer, getting five times as much real education as you got the preceding 8 months.

And ALSO, "cut the price in half" is completely disingenuous. Tuition is a fraction of the total cost of school: there's fees and books, of course. But more importantly, there's opportunity cost, usually represented by some kind of unskilled pay, perhaps $20k/year. In Vancouver in the early 2000s, college will run you roughly $250/course, and university $500/course. That sounds like half the price, until your calculation includes that $20k/year in lost salary (plus $1k-$2k in fees and supplies). Suddenly it's a $26k vs $22k, which is no savings worth talking about.


I'm going to a community college now (at 34) and it seems like the quality of teaching is very good but the grading is too generous. If I had lower ambitions, I could see myself getting by on an hour a week of study for each class while still earning good grades.

I am worried about the opportunity cost, in terms of networking with people, but I had no choice but to start in a community college due to poor high school grades. After 30 hours I can transfer, but I will probably stay since I can maintain my full time software developer job while in the community college. I don't think I'll be able to do that when I transfer to the university.


What I got out of JC:

- A good english teacher (Strunk and White). My writing improved tremendously.

- Calculus

- A taste for history

What I didn't get:

- Anything relevant to CS

- Any good math beyond calculus (they offered "statistics for business majors", which was really lame)

On the whole it was a good way for a self-learner to get some cheap learning out of the way, and also get some job experience (as a coop in the IT shop of a local government organization).


A couple of my friends went to a JC and went on to go to what I will define as "schools with recognizable names but not ivy league"-caliber 4 year schools and ended up getting less than half of their classes accepted as transferred largely due to technicalities.

They effectively had to go through 4 years of college anyway, they could have saved just as much by enrolling immediately and taking JC courses over the summers and graduated in 4 years instead of 5-6.


This is where research pays off. Community college advisers, at least at my school, are very bad. In Illinois all of the schools have a complete transfer database online at uselect.org.


I think it's better to enroll in a 4 year university, and then take all the classes you can at a local JC and transfer them over. That way you avoid yet another admissions gauntlet and will be checking if things transfer for every class.


As is the lack of critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills from the other side.

EDIT: In response to some of the questions below, please let me clarify. When I said "other side" I was meaning a lack of well-roundedness. I was NOT trying to pit STEM grads against liberal arts grads.

I do not intend to state that STEM graduates don't know problem solving or critical thinking. Far from it. However in my experience, those skills are discarded too quickly - similar to how Liberal Arts grads tend to discard even the limited quantitative toolsets they've acquired. (I'll concede its probably not as prevalent among the HN crowd.)

Ultimately, its a lack of well-roundedness that limits all camps (I'm sure it would be more accurate to consider more tightly-defined groups than just liberal arts vs engineers.) Ideas are cheap, that's why we laugh at the Wharton posts looking for "code monkeys" every few months. Just as problematic though, is the greatest product but no ability to bring it to market and sustain a viable business.


I am willing to posit that a lack of statistical knowledge does more harm to critical thinking than a lack of rhetorical knowledge.


I'm a stats-heavy computer scientist, but I'd argue the opposite, that the ability to construct and evaluate a rigorous argument is the first thing lacking: one that plausibly analyzes the domain, recounts opposing arguments reasonably fairly, constructs counterarguments that are responsive to the opponents' arguments, and uses logical argumentation along with empirical evidence in a way that actually supports its points.

Statistics does fit into that, as one particular species of correctly using empirical evidence. But most freshmen students aren't even constructing coherent arguments in the broad sense; having a technical knowledge of statistical theorems isn't the main bottleneck. This is actually a common problem in my classes: technically-solid students who can't write a coherent essay-length or blog-post-length argument in favor of or against a point. The better students tended to have taken at least a Philosophy 101 course, which taught them how to write a basic "argument for or against a position" paper. Once you have that, there's a pretty good basis on which to expand the argumentation toolbox with statistical arguments.


I'm a stats-heavy computer scientist, but I'd argue the opposite: the ability to construct and evaluate a rigorous argument is the first thing lacking: one that plausibly analyzes the domain, recounts opposing arguments reasonably fairly, constructs counterarguments that are actually responsive to the opponents' arguments, and uses logical argumentation along with empirical evidence in a way that correctly supports its points.

This seems closer to "statistics versus logos" than "statistics versus rhetoric."


So on one side you run a T-test to see if the correlation is significant.

On the other side you have the ability to phrase it as a question in the same language as Aristotle.


So on one side you run a T-test to see if the correlation is significant.

This is an incredibly gross simplification of applying statistical theory. I suggest you pick up some texts on inference, Bayesian stats, and probability theory to learn how stats != "running t-tests".


He was clearly just picking one useful tool that stats provides, not stating that it was the entirety of statistics.

I'm not making any statement about whether I agree with him, but if you disagree you will have to claim that he is cherry picking one useful and one useless skill, not just say that there is more to stats than t-tests.


I'd suggest that 9 times out of 8 many STEMs have contextual biases that fail to account for general knowledge that otherwise would strengthen their argumentative position.


> 9 times out of 8 many STEMs <X>

So, 112% of the time 60% of STEMS <X>? What a strange way of phrasing it.


An attempt at statistical sarcasm/humour.


Stupid lack of internet /sarcasm tags :/


Likely so for critical thinking (Common sense not being so common and all that...). Additionally though, an inability to understand and thoroughly evaluate a problem or articulate its solution, is certainly a challenge as well.


Are you suggesting an engineering degree or computer science degree etc. don't teach critical thinking and problem solving skills? I'd concede that better communication skills should be taught.


I won't so concede. Schools have been making concerted efforts for a while now to teach engineers better communication skills, and now that I work in a heavy-duty engineering environment it is clearly not the case that every engineer comes out of school a drooling asocial moron.

In fact recently some job reqs were going around the company through several of the "communication" oriented people, and it was the engineers correcting the grammar and improving the flow of the text.

An unkind impulse suggests that when logic and traditional rhetoric become the domain of "dead prejudiced white guys" you're not looking at the ideal environment for teaching communication skills. The writing of some of my high school acquaintances with English or Journalism degrees blows my mind, and not in a good way.


Could you explain what you mean by the terms "critical thinking" and "other side"?


Many people seem to be confused by this statement but I am guessing your liberal arts school taught you that "critical thinking" is what critics do, am I correct?


If by critic, you mean from the greek "kritikós" and not some creation of cable news or au courant op-ed pages.


> However in my experience, [problem solving or critical thinking] are discarded too quickly - similar to how Liberal Arts grads tend to discard even the limited quantitative toolsets they've acquired.

Are you really claiming that Liberal Arts grads don't discard their problem solving and critical thinking?

I ask because I don't see them demonstrating either, at least compared to STEM folk. So, either they didn't learn them or they discard them quickly.


That's a problem with high school, not university.


Agreed. However, there's enough stories in the US and Canada to show that high schools are under-performing. There are lots of opportunities for reforming high school, but let's not jump to teaching kids Calculus II when they have trouble spelling "Calculus" in the first place.


Second that.

When a 20-something is strapped with a 50-100K+ debt, the perceived risk involved in doing something they did not exactly go to school for is usually too much to handle.


> There's no reason why an English or Philosophy degree needs to cost $15k a year.

Sure there is. It's called Baumol's Cost Disease.

Now of course some of those engineers & scientists are working on things like khan academy and other methods of attacking that problem. The downside is that the demand for English or Philosophy majors will only further erode (what do you do with a philosophy degree when there are fewer jobs teaching the next generation of philosophy students?).

No one is saying that everyone should be an engineer or scientist, but it's blatantly obvious that moving the ratio a good bit is, in fact, the answer. English and Philosphy majors can't get jobs while some kids with CS degrees are getting close to making 100k/yr straight out of undergrad. The market is speaking. Listen to it.


If student loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy lenders would think much harder about the wisdeom of lending $40k/year for liberal arts degrees. Colleges would have to reconsider what they charge for such degrees and students would have an important market signal when choosing a course of study.


> If student loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy lenders would think much harder about the wisdeom of lending $40k/year for liberal arts degrees.

Not if the lender is the US govt, as it is today.

Not if the loans are guaranteed by the US govt, as it was before.


I agree completely. The special treatment of student loans w.r.t. bankruptcy is bizarre and leads to all sorts of bad consequences.


As someone about to graduate, the first year after college salary of CS students right now is incredibly intimidating. My work isn't worth that much.


Well, I was one of the 90K people who graduated with performing a performing arts (classical guitar performance) degree in 2008. The culture when you get through with an undergrad performing artist degree is not, "go out into the world and work!" it's more along the lines of, "go back to school and get more degrees in an attempt to stay in school longer by working in academia." I know this because I fell into it. A masters of music degree and a year of doctoral school later, I quit. While I don't regret my time in school, I certainly don't use any of the specific skills learned there.

There's this entire culture among artists where staying in a school environment is the ultimate goal. Artists are entirely capable of driving economic growth and doing really well for themselves, but the skills they get in school are more related to staying in school than making a living outside of it. That's really where the arts are oversold: "Come to my school and you'll be good enough afterward to make a living doing exactly what you love!" The reality is a lot more harsh, a fact never shared with students.


What economic factors do you think have created this environment for art? In order to win you have to have 10k people buying your stuff?


I have a similar conclusion but slightly different reasoning. And I want to defend liberal arts majors a bit, since I'm one of them.

To me, the problem is that most people don't view college as an investment in their future, but rather as a temporary place to delay choices. Certainly, it is positioned as an investment by educators, and it is probably true for science & engineering degrees, but do students approach it that way?

I have a liberal arts degree from an "elite private university", and I can tell you that the school's approach was to give someone like me everything they could possibly need to succeed, but to leave it up to me to do the actual succeeding. My major's requirements had only 8 classes - 1.5 semesters. Our "core curriculum" had a diversity of requirements, but all were easily gotten around; the science core was easily satisfied by courses such as "Solar System Astronomy", "Oceanography", or "Stars, Galaxies, and the Cosmos", as opposed to Calculus 101 or what-have-you.

I took those classes, but I took those classes in all seriousness. They may have been soft on the hardcore science, but they opened up the breadth of my understanding of the world. Some others in my class did not - they were not at school to invest themselves, and that was their right.

I think I'm much better at the work I do today because I took classes with titles all the way from Quantitative Political Methodology, to Metaphysics & Epistomology, to The Political Economy of Development, to Psych 101, to Poetry Writing, to Arabic, to Computer Science 201, to The American Frontier.

But that's because I took all of those courses dead seriously. That's what makes college a good investment. Well, and the life experience itself, but that's not exactly an "investment" in the monetary sense.

If you don't approach school that way, you're not just wasting your money on tuition - there's a massive opportunity cost. 4 years of failing at a startup is certainly a better business education than an undergrad business degree from my school.

Really, it's a cultural problem. It's like a stomach ache after eating too much candy; things were so good for so long, we collectively forgot what it was like to have to sacrifice and work for the things you want. Applying for entrance to school and actually graduating doesn't have much of anything to do with your education. That's something you have to work for.

Now, is it "in the state's interest" to promote, say, English majors? I think that's a whole different topic. I think anyone who is asking the taxpayer to fund their education needs to be ready to pay that back with directly applicable skills, which would seem to suggest you mostly need scientists & engineers.


I found my computer science education to be pretty lightweight and not tremendously useful or beneficial to me.

I found my english, psychology, history and philosophy educations, which I took dead seriously as you did, to be tremendously useful. They didn't force me to learn, and the classes were relatively easy if you just wanted to pass, and I saw plenty of classmates learn nothing but still pass or get high marks.

But for those who take it seriously, it is nothing short of enlightening. You can skim through it and get your A+ and go on to the next stage of your rat-race, but you're shortchanging yourself.

I pity those who don't understand what the great scientists and artists of the past called "enlightenment". It's something you can only get from a serious study of the liberal arts. It has nothing to do with making money, although it can certainly help with making money, even if it doesn't lead to some well-defined corporate career.

Engineers scoff at me when I talk about phenomenology or existentialism or the value in mythology, fiction, critical analysis, personality theory. I pity them. They don't know what they're missing.


I absolutely agree. The courses I've consistently gotten those most out of over the years were not my engineering courses, but my non-engineering. I use history, literature, music, art, speech etc. pretty much every day.

My engineering courses got me my job, my "soft" courses made me good at it.


Excellent point, and my experience is similar. My degree is in philosophy. Already knew programming before high school, and my hobby computer work kept those skills up to date while I was focusing on other stuff - "unrelated" stuff like music, art, foreign languages, English, literature, history - these are things that made it easy for me to relate to people who weren't programmers (for example, everyone else in a company outside IT).

While the cynic in me might say you just need to keep up with American Idol and an occasional Fox news broadcast to be able to chitchat with most Americans... I'm not feeling that cynical tonight ;) I'm certainly no expert on any of those subjects I studied in college, but I'm also not afraid of them either.

For me, philosophy was a way of developing my critical thinking and logic skills (which I already had from programming at an early age) outside of computers and seeing how to apply them constructively to a wide range of topics/issues (religion, law/politics, ethic, etc). Taking even more computer science and progamming courses in university would have bored me to death (well, it started to when I tried it).


A degree in Philosophy or English, let's say, is a luxury that would be incomprehensible to many in the developing world. If I were to suggest to the Vietnamese I know here, for example, that they spend their tuition on something that doesn't directly correlate with a roof over their head or food on their table they'd worry about my mental health.

Thanks to globalization that luxury is going to start to seem just as extravagant to Westerners.


A lot of things we do here would make them question our mental health. Say, pretending like you really need more than that $40,000 job the English major can get that lets him live in a small but safe apartment in a fine neighborhood (that has plumbing, electricity, and sanitation) in a non-center-of-the-world American city, and shop for all the groceries he needs in the market 10 minutes away.

Anyway, for a community that loves Steve Jobs so dearly - a man who claims the Mac wouldn't have been so successful if not for that calligraphy class he took at Reed College - there's an awful lot of derision in these comments for non-engineering around here. Of course, this is also a guy that dropped out of school and taught himself technical skills. Just enough to be dangerous... and convince someone like Woz to help him out. Or maybe that was the LSD and Buddhism talking.


Except that the case of Jobs is a perfect illustration of the grandparent's point: he dropped out of Reed College because he couldn't justify the expense to himself. He audited the calligraphy class, and slept on floors and couches. So he didn't go $100k into debt to take those classes with the expectation it would land him a good job; he sat in on them because he was interested in them but recognized they were a bad investment.


I think Josh's point is that Jobs' success came from the inspiration he got from his calligraphy class— not an engineering degree. He was never really an engineer.

And I agree with him: many tech-oriented sites tend to think the only jobs that (should) exist end in "Science" or "Engineering". Does the entertainment industry not fuel economic growth? Would Netflix be popular if we didn't have movies and television shows to stream? Would smartphones be pushing the envelope if all they did was allow you to check your email and take calls? Do we not laud video games that have fantastic stories and artwork?

I've even seen commenters express superiority between the science degrees. For instance, "Computer Science isn't really a science. It's just math!" and, "You can't call yourself a software engineer! Real engineers get qualifications! Real engineers do something that can affect public safety!" are both common sentiments.

Why is this? Do these people really not see the importance of the liberal arts, even when their own work is heavily reliant on them?


The problem is that you can't have an engineering job without and engineering degree. Being a software engineer and being a software developer are two things. It's like saying you are mechanical engineer if you can use AutoCad. Why would I bother with the degree when I can read the manual.

Engineering is a process by which professionals create and better their surrounding harmoniously with nature and society. Software is also built like this.

However, to suggest that being a code monkey or a WOW tester is an 'engineering position' is a leap you can only make in software. Cause suggesting that someone who took 2 classes of AutoCad can build you a bridge is ludicrous.

You can, however, get a job in entertainment industry without a degree in the said field. And getting a degree in, let's say, singing, does not make you the next Madonna either.

Whereas taking an engineering degree make you an engineer.

And you can't possibly think Apple is successful cause Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class, do you? If so, you're in denial of what it really takes to do what he did.


If Jobs' success was based off of a calligraphy class then everyone who took calligraphy classes would be wildly successful, I should be wildly successful!

I guarantee you that if everyone had science/engineering degrees, Netflix would still be streaming movies and television. Just because I am going to school for an engineering degree doesn't mean I won't take a job in the music industry (nor do I need a formal system of education to play good music)

It seems like you've never talked to an engineer, as math is very highly regarded in the engineering world as it allows engineers to do most of what they do. On top of that design is also very highly regarded in the engineering world, as most of the things 'created' by engineers are 'designed' by engineers. Your senseless disconnect between science and math (and strong connection between math and liberal arts) is a whole other debate that I don't ever want to go into.

I can't even imagine hearing a respectful engineer talk down on computer science (or software engineers), I haven't met an engineer that has done this yet. In fact, most of the engineers I know started with computer science and then moved onto things such as ex. electrical engineering or mechanical engineering (and even vice-versa!)

You are also making the assumption that the entertainment industry is built off of people with liberal arts degrees, when it is exactly the opposite. The people who built the entertainment industry were people who had a burning passion.

I'm trying to make the point that design and engineering are practically the same thing.


It's supply and demand. The output from college isn't matching the needs of those hiring. There aren't enough qualified programmers, math types, etc. This isn't true for many other majors, yet our colleges output far more of these other majors.


I think that's because those majors appeal to more people. It makes sense that the most sought-after jobs are the ones that appeal to the least amount of people.

My completely uneducated opinion is that middle and high school should do what colleges are supposed to: prepare students for the real world with useful skills. Teach them how to teach themselves. Then, when they go to college, they can focus on a subject they really want and not treat it like Camp College™.


I think you mean that the most sought-after employees work in jobs that appeal to the least amount of people.

Surely if the job doesn't appeal to many people, it is an oxymoron to say it is the most sought-after job.


Sure, Jobs audited the calligraphy class, but he was able to do so because there was a liberal arts college running the class. The point is that the calligraphy class had substantial value later on, at least in the mind of Steve Jobs.


I'm not arguing against the existence of liberal arts colleges; I did a philosophy degree before going into computer science and I'm happy I did. I'm saying that Jobs' experiences and influences aren't really a counter-argument to the idea that people getting liberal arts and humanities degrees likely aren't doing so as a considered investment in their future earning potential.


No supporter of the liberal arts claims that it's the degree that counts. It's the education that counts. Jobs got his liberal education even if he didn't get his degree -- and it shows.


And really, a strategy that relies on you being Steve Jobs isn't exactly a strategy that necessarily works for anyone else.


Jobs made that point even more explicitly:

http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_l0f1ocmoGG1qz50x3.png


And the quote that goes with it:

"We’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, to be able to get the best of both, to make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view, but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users – the users don’t have to come to them, they come to the user.” --Steve Jobs


If only everyone guided their work by those principles. The world of consumer technology would be a much better place.


Not really. Variety is a good thing and nerdy, advanced users often prefer nerdy, advanced products. I would hate to live in a world with just the iPhone and no Android.


The 40k job was only available to you in the US thanks to our uniquely privileged position in the world in the second half of the 20th century. In a global labor market you're going to have to provide a lot more real value to earn such a generous salary.


But does the lack of an English major prevent you from securing a $40,000 job?


In absolute terms, no. But likewise, lack of a high school diploma doesn't prevent you from becoming a music star.


Same here in India, any academic degree which is not Engineering/Hard Science/Medical is frowned upon.


> Really, it's a cultural problem.

No, it's an economic one.

> I have a liberal arts degree from an "elite private university".

Ok. Let's make the assumption that you're at least moderately intelligent and would be able to get a job for 40K from the bat.

40K * 4 = 160K

College tuition is 40K itself at an "elite private university". Then you add living expenses, books, food, etc. and you have another 25K. That's 65K.

65K * 4 = 260K

160K + 260K = 420K

Yup. Half a mil to learn about Poetry Writing. Sorry, but that's just silly.

I would much rather my kid spend his time working in a small business and learning about entrepreneurship hands-on, than pissing away untold fortunes to sleep in a class about poetry. You can slip the kid some Robert Frost after work.

Trust me, if he has an inquisitive mind, he'll explore all the weird and strange subjects on his own time. With the internet, he can even be challenged by greater minds.

The best argument for college is the social environment, which can't be replicated outside of it. Not education. The kids get that. That's why they don't go to class.


It sounds like we agree - my post was expressly derisive of the kid who sleeps through his poetry class. Regardless, it sounds like writing poetry suggests a romantic lark to you. To me, it was a lesson in how to convey powerfully complex ideas in concise, but meaningful, language.

I didn't make a lot of money right out of school, but 3 years later I was making a boatload. Why? Because I can write the kind of email that will make someone who has a job I'm able to do agree to coffee with me, and pitch myself successfully in that meeting. I'm a "go getter" who goes and finds my success, because I'm the opposite of the kind of kid who goes to sleep in his poetry class.

And by the way, I taught myself programming. That CS 201 class I took was a java programming class where the instructors wrote a framework that we learned. At the end of the semester, all I knew were a bunch of the functions of their framework. Why would I need school to learn programming? Unlike my major, CS had something like 20 required courses. That's at least half of your whole university education, more once you find a particular area to focus in.

However, I took an economics class from a Nobel laureate and a history class from a professor who lit the room with his enthusiasm for storytelling obscure historical anecdotes. It's the difference between reading a textbook about WWII and watching Band of Brothers. You can't get that stuff on your own.

Also to clarify: I partied my face off in college, too. But it was work hard, play hard. I'm a student of life, not of how to optimize my bank balance before I'm 30.

Regarding below comments: other than an internship I got during college from a graduate of my school, I haven't experienced much nepotism from my university. Most people have never heard of Washington University in St. Louis unless you work in Medicine.


Why would I need school to learn programming?

It's funny, because that's my attitude towards the liberal arts. I took almost nothing but math, physics and CS in college, and then went on to get graduate degrees in CS, but I read history, politics and public policy on my own. Also some econ and financial stuff since 2008 because I decided I wanted to understand it.

In contrast, the two history classes I took in college were awful. You could just as easily flip your anecdotes - I learned an amazing amount from my technical courses, things I just wouldn't have learned by reading books on my own.


> It sounds like we agree

We agree in the sense that we both believe there is value in a good education. Especially a liberal arts one.

I learned how to learn in college. By taking disparate subjects, I can absorb new information with ease. That is the most tangible and valuable skill I picked up. I got it by taking random subjects. The very definition of a liberal arts education.

That said, the degree itself is worthless. I never had a resume. I started my first business in college. That was 12 years ago.

For me, it might have been better to simply audit those classes or do something on my own, and put the tuition in my pocket. I have a strange feeling that applies to many people here.


For anyone really interested in liberal arts, you would probably be better off doing it on your own, even if college was a lot cheaper than it is. Use your money more for things that will repay the investment.

There are some really good resources out there for self-study. An easy one to start with is Ron Gross's The Independent Scholar's Handbook, http://www.amazon.com/Independent-Scholars-Handbook-Ronald-G....

But the much older (early seventies) book This Way Out is even more useful. My Amazon review:

This book is in 3 parts, the last 2 Experimental Colleges and Foreign Study are too dated to be useful.

Part one is the best book for college-level self-study I have used. I first read it in the early 1980s and have reread it several times since, it is only 135 pages but packed with useful advice. The biggest weakness for the current user is that it has nothing on computers or the internet, but some of its advice such as "Write lots of short papers. Long papers kill students and tutors alike. Write lots of short papers. It will teach you too write and that, as we will demonstrate later, is essential" could almost have been written for the Web (most books on creating web pages emphasize short, to the point writing). They also mention the absolute essential for self-education - you must love to read, if you don't, then stay in college where they will force you to read.

http://www.amazon.com/This-way-out-alternatives-traditional/...


Degrees are still useful for work visas! It can also help with start-a-business visas too.


> Most people have never heard of Washington University in St. Louis unless you work in Medicine.

Or are old enough to remember the heyday of ftp.wustl.edu. :)


The framework your professors used was probably meant to teach you fundamentals. Sure, you can teach yourself to glue code together that you found on the Internet and get pretty good at it. The trouble comes when you get to a problem that hasn't been solved already. That's when the fundamentals you learned will kick in and actually help you.


You're working with the edge case in your example where a really smart person can get an amazing job right out of high school. It's more instructive to look at the average case:

- In the current economy, the number of high school grads making $40k/year is vanishingly small. It's more likely he'd be making 25k or less if he has a job at all. - 25k for living expenses and books for a college student is way too high unless she's going to school across the country and flies home a ton. - The average student doesn't pay 40k/year in tuition unless he has rich parents and is a below-average student. The average is less than 20k.

Let's redo the math: Tuition: 20k * 4 = 80k Living Expenses: 15k * 4 = 60k Total Expense: 140k

Let's say that our college student gets a below-average job that pays 32k/year.

In a 35 year career with 3% raises, our high school grad makes a total of $1,511,552. In a 31 year career with 3% raises, our college grad makes a total of $1,600,086.

Considering the time value of that $140,000, it's a wash. Go to college and study poetry if you want. The impact to your long-term bottom line is negligible.


I believe his math was accounting for the 4 years of lost wages during college as an opportunity cost of $32k/yr * 4yr = $128k for a total college expense of $140k + $128k = $268k.

Now, if you could invest that money at 3% compound interest over 30 years, you're talking about $650k -- that's 33% of your final career totals. (When I do that calculation for my 10 years of BS+PhD engineering, its pretty dramatic!)


That's assuming that an 18-year-old outside of the tech field could get a $32k/yr job to begin with. Looking at the unemployment rates for people without college degrees, there's a pretty large chance they wouldn't be able to get any job at all.


There's too many variables for people to be crunching numbers like this... while I went through university I lived at home and worked at jobs that paid $17/hour minimum. My total take home would probably be comparable to that of a person making less but paying for room and board. I say this with the assumption that those who skipped post-secondary education in favor of a job moved out of their homes almost immediately.

So where are those types of values in the calculations?

Now that I've graduated my starting job is ~$60k with a $20k annual raise once I've been in this position for a little over three years. There's not one friend that started work directly out of school that I can say that for.

Not to mention my degree allows me to venture to the upper ends of this company where education is a requirement while they'll plateau in seniority because of that.

Again, way too many variables and gray areas for us to do a number to number comparison because no two situations are identical and the idea of "average" or "typical" probably only makes up a small percentage of personae anyway.


I'm assuming you graduated with a bachelors? At the end of your BS, it's definitely worth thinking about opportunity cost (eg. is graduate school "worth it"). When I was working toward my PhD (engineering, with goals to eventually be entrepreneur)... I had to fend off detractors: "if you want to make money or do a startup, stop at a MS and get out there." I politely disagreed. Getting my PhD was a personal goal and shouldn't detract from future entrepreneurial activities.

Like you, I lived frugally during my entire educational experience, and the tuition was largely paid for through scholarship / fellowship. For talented people (who could prosper after dropping out), college expenses can be fairly minimal.


What do those stats look like normed for some proxy of intelligence, say, IQ, SAT/ACT scores, etc.?

I'm not sold either way on the debate myself. I think there are a lot of people in college who'd be better off outside, and a lot of people outside who'd be better off in. More to the point: I think that society as a whole would be better off with a different distribution of higher education opportunity.

Paraphrasing William Gibson: higher education is here, it's just not evenly distributed.


>College tuition is 40K itself at an "elite private university". Then you add living expenses, books, food, etc. and you have another 25K. That's 65K.

This is a bit disingenuous. Elite universities are almost universally free for those who need the help.

>Yup. Half a mil to learn about Poetry Writing. Sorry, but that's just silly.

>I would much rather my kid spend his time working in a small business and learning about entrepreneurship hands-on, than pissing away untold fortunes to sleep in a class about poetry. You can slip the kid some Robert Frost after work.

Money has such a weak correlation with happiness that the argument needs to be fleshed out a bit more to be convincing. I've known many engineers in my life and I've seen no evidence that they are happier than those who have pursued the arts. Life isn't a video game in which money is a score. Heck even in a video game, it's rarely about the accumulation of money.

Even in terms of building a lasting legacy, there is much to be said for the arts over business. Byron will be remembered long after the Vanderbilts are forgotten.


> The kids get that. That's why they don't go to class.

Baloney. They don't go to class because they are hung over, or because a new movie came out, or because they want to play video games, or because they just don't feel like going. A very few don't go because they are sick or have actual life issues beyond being unmotivated.

They are - as a rule of thumb, say, about 98% of the time - not sipping wine and discussing complex and nuanced issues.


As much as I would like it to be true, discussing complex issues will have very few influence on your future career.

Being good at socializing and networking will. An awful lot. And being hung over with friends does qualify for that.


> I would much rather my kid spend his time working in a small business and learning about entrepreneurship hands-on...

As much as I'd want this for my kids, not all kids have the passion for entrepreneurship, or innovation, necessary to be successful. Liberal Arts degrees can help by allowing young adults find an interesting and for them beneficial and hopefully rewarding career, that they might not otherwise find if their best option is working as a cashier at a dollar store.

The cost though for Arts degrees, and I have sat on the board of governors for a well-known and high reputation university, is ridiculous and largely driven by politics & tradition, more than economic value.

But I don't want to pay for my children to party & socialize for four years at that cost!!


I can't agree with this. Spending a couple hours at a time discussing Heidegger with an engaged teacher is not an experience you can get outside of a college. And it helped me ask questions I am not smart enough to have asked on my own.

The best argument for college is the social environment, which can't be replicated outside of it. Not education.

I don't think that's true in serious liberal arts colleges. They're all about changing the way you think.

Edit: of course the social aspect is important. But it's not the best argument.


Disagree.

Reading books where others smarter than ourselves ask these questions can also unfold new paradigms and impart the same intellectual growth.


I'm sure that having a conversation with about a dozen other students and a teacher was more effective than just reading the book would have been. Especially since the teacher was able to fill in some cultural and translation gaps in the book we were reading, and could make connections to other philosophies that we didn't even know about but Heidegger took for granted.


I could definitely see that. I guess my point is more that I don't think the experience you outlined is unique to college. And I'm sure there is a whole other conversation (I see it everywhere in these comments) about the value for the price.


You're counting living expenses twice. If he hadn't gone to college he'd have had to eat all the same; so it's more 320K than 420, and we're below a third of a mil instead of near half.

Still a lot for learning to write poetry but that's not all he did...


"Trust me, if he has an inquisitive mind, he'll explore all the weird and strange subjects on his own time. With the internet, he can even be challenged by greater minds. The best argument for college is the social environment, which can't be replicated outside of it. Not education. The kids get that. That's why they don't go to class."

No. When it comes to non-technical degrees, it's the classroom environment. It's the academic and intellectual environment. Which the internet isn't close to replicating. Someday it might come close, but certainly not in the near future. If you think the internet is approaching a college education in value, you haven't experienced a proper college education.


Ugh. What a depressing way to think about college. But you're right. My English degree isn't doing jack for me. In my free time during college, I actually studied theology, computer science, and martial arts. They are what should be written on my diploma, and what I'd rather show to potential employers (well, not the theology part so much).


Achieving a baseline of financial success is, in the average case, about acquiring some useful skill and providing value to someone in exchange for money. Going to college and not acquiring a useful skill cannot be anything but entertainment (and very expensive entertainment when we come to it). There's nothing depressing about this, it's just common sense, albeit common sense that very few choose to apply until it is too late.


I agree with you that the cost of education is very high, but you need to look at the marginal cost. A person has to eat and pay rent regardless of whether they are in school. You can't count that 25K as the marginal cost of school.


>>Half a mil to learn about Poetry Writing. Sorry, but that's just silly.

Except it's payed for by your taxes. Who is silly here?


>Half a mil to learn about Poetry Writing. Sorry, but that's just silly.

Half a mil so that when you apply for a job at $MEGA-CORP or in government the hirer says "Oh you went to %SCHOOL%, same as me" welcome to our management fast-track program, followed by promotion and VP-dom.

As opposed to "Oh you got a CS degree", well programmers get to sit in this cubicle and get paid $50k until we outsource the whole thing to India.


> As opposed to "Oh you got a CS degree", well programmers get to sit in this cubicle and get paid $50k until we outsource the whole thing to India.

If you're making $50k you're being screwed.

Also, a small percent of people (business students, poetry majors) ever go down the VP track. As a CS major I'm much, much better off in pay, quality of life, career stability than my friends who got business degrees. Never mind liberal arts, liberal arts is a vacation you take before you actually go to (graduate) school.


> If you're making $50k you're being screwed.

I'm being screwed then. I have a CS degree and a business Masters degree. I'm a "senior" developer and make $55k.

The primary employer in my area is the Montana State government. Programmer pay here tops out at about $60k/year. Low-end programmer salaries are about $35-$40k. In the private sector you'd be lucky to get $70k/year.

My wife and I are thinking about moving, but you can't really beat the quality of life here. Remote work is an option, but I don't really have the network/stomach to freelance and remote permanent positions are pretty scarce.


Ok if you lived in a major metropolitan area you'd be getting screwed.

Cost of living is cheaper in rural areas, and there are fewer tech companies. But the vast majority of CS graduates live and work in metropolitan areas, so for the vast majority of CS graduates $50k is getting screwed.


You're right, cost of living matters. I think it's safe to say that 50k in most metros (even ignoring the coasts) is a pretty bad deal, though.


$50K in Missoula is probably $80K in San Francisco and $100K in NYC, and that's without taking discrepancies in federal, state, local, and sales taxes into account.

A senior developer in SF or NYC is still coming out ahead - probably due to the sheer amount of competition for them - but not quite as much as you'd think at first glance.


The biggest difference to my mind, the one that bugs me most, is the opportunity cost. Sure, I have no commute, low mortgage for a big house, no sales tax and easy access to some of the most beautiful unspoiled wilderness in the entire world. The downside is that there are virtually no jobs/startups here that I find interesting.

You either adjust your expectations when you live here, or you go somewhere else.

I am somewhat worried that when I do decide to leave that my wages will be pegged artificially low because of the cost of living difference. But I figure I can always convert my salary to the local equivalent when asked what my current salary is.


What about lying or simply not answering?

Why would an interviewer have a right to know your current salary? That person is tasked with acquiring your intellectual resources at the lowest price possible. And by giving them your current salary, you're clearing up a big unknown in their equation -- your current alternative to a negotiated agreement.

When you go and buy a car, the sales people don't generally offer to tell you the car's invoice price, do they?


> But I figure I can always convert my salary to the local equivalent when asked what my current salary is.

Same. I make in your salary range, and I figure I will simply grab some COLA calculators when I go job hunting and adjust upwards to correct for the local difference


Agreed. My area's companies typically offer $50k for entry level developers. You can swindle more out of companies if they've been looking for someone for long enough or you have a special skillset that interests them.

I have one friend who got $75k off the bat but that was a job in a company that employs 4 programmers for the entire company (national) and is energy industry related.


Move, work in the bay area, get that network and then move back. If you have a house in Montana, and family there, rent it out and get your family to help you manage it. Even if you have to pay $2000/month more in rent, which you won't, you'll still come out ahead. And you'll have better weather and cheaper airfare than Montana.


This is an avenue I'm investigating.

Just trying to find the right place to go. Right now I'm doing a software craftsman apprenticeship to increase the quality of place I can get a job. When that's done (it's a 20-30 hour commitment on top of a full-time+ job) in January, I'm going to get involved in some OSS projects.

The move is probably at least 6-12 months out.


It sounds alot to me like you're having confidence issues. By all means, get involved with OSS, but do it for love, not to beef up your CV. If you have no code to your name, stick your SC exercises on GitHub and start applying. There was a hiring thread here yesterday with at least a hundred jobs across the US. Opportunity is ripe.

Worst case scenario if you do? You won't get anything good.

Worst case scenario if you don't? You'll have spent a year trying more or less random things and then still not getting anything.


This is probably not something I should talk too much about on a venue filled with potential employers or coworkers. But I think self-awareness is important, so I'll say a few things.

You're right on with the confidence (and persistence?) issues. That's one reason for doing the SC thing. It's helping me build up some confidence. I've been programming for quite a number of years. My day jobs for the last several years have destroyed the confidence I used to have. I'm getting it back, and quickly. And that makes me very, very happy.

OSS is something I want to be a core part of my job, because I use and appreciate it so much. I've tried getting involved with several projects before. Invariably my confidence falters enough that I give up before I really get going.

I'll go over to the two jobs threads from the other day and apply to some places. There were at least 3 or 4 that I would LOVE to work at.


> This is probably not something I should talk too much about on a venue filled with potential employers or coworkers.

Having concerns about your abilities and taking steps to improve them is a very positive trait.

> OSS is something I want to be a core part of my job, because I use and appreciate it so much.

I'll challenge you to find a single job on those hiring threads where you won't be steeping neck-high in open source software. Whether you'll get to contribute back is a different issue, but if nothing else you'll gain loads of exposure that you can use to contribute on your own time.

> I'll go over to the two jobs threads from the other day and apply to some places. There were at least 3 or 4 that I would LOVE to work at.

Awesome! Good luck!


Have you read the who is hiring thread? More and more companies are okay with remote workers. Anecdotally I hired a guy recently who is remote. I don't want to comment on his salary ... but i wouldn't be typing this if it were less.


Agreed. If you graduated in CS from a top 5 school you can easily make 90k in Seattle straight out of school, likely even more in the Bay Area.


Elitism only works while it has some kind of advantage.

If going to an elite college gives you a better chance of reaching the top, then hirers will come from elite colleges.

If getting a CS degree gives you a better chance of reaching the top, then hirers will have CS degess.


If getting a CS degree gives you a better chance of reaching the top, then hirers will have CS degess.

Getting a CS degree does not give you a better chance of reaching the top. It gives you a better chance of reaching the upper-middle.


I'd say it gives you a better chance of founding a successful startup, if you're so inclined.


Successful go to elite college, successful only hire from elite college, therefore to be successful you go to elite college.

Of course this system eventually breaksdown. But for Eton school it's worked since 1440, for Oxford since 1096, Cambridge since 1284 - but eventually it will break down.


> But for Eton school it's worked since 1440, for Oxford since > 1096, Cambridge since 1284 - but eventually it will break down.

Universities pretty much had the monopoly for highly specialized knowledge until very recently. The companies, public and students waking up to the fact that knowing your rhetoric & poetry ain't so valuable any more IS the system breaking down. Right now.

You'll rather hire from HN than from Oxford.


Yes it was different in the middle ages, it has changed now. Only 10% of UK government ministers went to Eton and only 70% to Oxford and Cambridge so the power of the old-boys network is disappearing.


> Half a mil so that when you apply for a job at $MEGA-CORP or in government the hirer says "Oh you went to %SCHOOL%, same as me" welcome to our management fast-track program, followed by promotion and VP-dom.

Do companies really work that way? I think trying to max-out your competitiveness and money-making skills by hiring the right guys would make more sense than hiring via secluded grapevine.


It does work that way, although more subtlety. More like "Oh you went to %SCHOOL% and we know some people in common. Welcome to a solid entry level position with decent pay and opportunity for advancement."


Yes and no. You have to remember a lot of jobs in $MEGA-CORP don't need much more than a warm body that can open a spreadsheet and mail it out. I deal with these idiots everyday and they often have titles of Project Manager, although I've recently been dealing with ones that have VP titles. The thing is, even in a giant company there are very few people pushing the boulder forward so to speak. So when hiring for non-boulder pushing position it's easy to hire someone with the right credentials because even if they are not the greatest hire ever they can still do the simple job they are given.


The reason you hire from elite schools has nothing to do with the schools themselves. MIT and Harvard don't have substantially different curricula than anywhere else, and for undergrads it really doesn't matter if you have N Nobel Prize winners. But you want to hire someone who was smart enough to get in to MIT or Harvard.

In terms of hiring people because they went to the same school you went to... I've never seen it, though I wouldn't be surprised if that happens with Ivy Leaguers.


The one time I saw it work ("Oh, you went to Columbia, too!"), the manager who made the "hire" decision fired the employee about six months later.

From one point, a curve, right? :-)

I can't imagine this working out well on the average, though.


competitiveness only matters when you have competitors.

So if you are an engineering company and you work like this you will be destroyed by countries with more meritocratic hiring systems.

If you don't have any competitors because you work for government or in a sector like banking where you are protected from foreign competition and all you competitors hire on the same system - then you will do fine (for now).

Can we spot any English speaking countries which might be an example of this?


You bring up some good points. However, to call it a "good investment" requires comparing it to alternatives.

Two decades ago, not many alternatives existed (libraries? buying books? maybe private tutors?). A decade ago, the online world started opening up a ton of information, but it was basically a wild west of unstructured information.

Now fast forward to the present. Information is beginning to have a bit more structure. More importantly online learning is becoming more social. As this trend progresses my best guess is that the comparative value of college will decline. Not because students in college are learning any less. Indeed thinks to technology they're probably learning more efficiently than ever. But, a lot of that learning can take place online and outside of formal academia at much, much lower costs.

So, yes, college has been a nice investment, but I see the returns declining rapidly on that investment. Sort of like how investing in newspaper stock might have been a good play for most of the 20th century. The last decade, not so much so.


And I want to defend liberal arts majors a bit, since I'm one of them.

I agree with you with a slight change. I went to a public liberal arts college and received a BS in Computer Science. I ended up having many hard math and science courses along with courses in philosophy, religion, and chamber music. Overall, I think I received the best of both worlds.


There is a serious lack of maturity in American adults age 18-30. It's been creeping for a long time, and now we're seeing the results.

I strongly agree that college has just become a place to delay becoming an adult, and delay the real-world.


"Most importantly, graduates in the arts, psychology and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth. Economic growth is not a magic totem to which all else must bow, but it is one of the main reasons we subsidize higher education."

I think this is a completely misguided assumption. Maybe this is true these days. But it wasn't always true, and it shouldn't be true. Higher education, especially in the liberal arts, is for training students to become good community members, citizens and leaders. It's about giving them the cognitive, rhetorical, and even emotional skills required to solve the hard problems that we face as a society. And there is a lot more to solving those problems than promoting "innovation" or "economic growth". We subsidize higher education because producing citizens with those skills is valuable to our society.

Are liberal arts programs perfect? No. Do they cost too much? Maybe. Would it be good for society to have more people going into STEM fields? Probably. Does all this mean that liberal arts education is "oversold"? Certainly not. Indeed, it is rare to see people express just how valuable the liberal arts are, and why.


> It's about giving them the cognitive, rhetorical, and even emotional skills required to solve the hard problems that we face as a society.

I suppose the counter argument is: Do you think individuals graduating in STEM fields don't pick up these skills? And if so, why are these skills limited to liberal arts majors?


> Do you think individuals graduating in STEM fields don't pick up these skills?

That depends, I think, on what their program is. Many STEM programs leading to a Bachelor's degree are still liberal arts programs, in name and in spirit. Let's not forget that math and astronomy, at least, have been part of the conception of the "liberal arts" since antiquity. The idea that there is a sharp division between science and math, on the one hand, and the liberal arts on the other, is a recent one.

Some STEM programs, however, are purely technical programs. Their value is in a particular kind of technical training. I don't know, since I haven't gone through one of those programs myself, but I would bet that students graduating from such programs don't come away with the same kind of skills that a liberal arts education provides.

In sum, I think the STEM/liberal arts distinction is a false dichotomy. The real distinction is something like: as a student in a particular program, are you primarily training to be a citizen, or a technician? You can, of course, do both.


>I don't know, since I haven't gone through one of those programs myself, but I would bet that students graduating from such programs don't come away with the same kind of skills that a liberal arts education provides.

I would tend to agree with you here. STEM fields push logic and reason, but then you get students who look at the most practical solutions instead of the solutions that might not be as practical but benefit the most or offer an intangible benefit.


From my experience you are correct. STEM programs are about critical thinking, problem solving and planning for undesired outcomes. An Engineer is taught how to constructively deduce the situation so that a beneficial proposal can be generated.

The classes I took that are "arts" classes or "business" classes taught models and programs that are supposed to be blindly followed. I failed to see how they were ever applicable because they ignored the "human factor" that exists in all real world problems. I'm seeing lots of companies/depts fail because they're being run by people who were taught these principles. They're encountering issues and trying to apply a dated/loosely correlated model to solve it and almost dumbfounded when it utterly fails.


With all due respect...

"I think this is a completely misguided assumption. Maybe this is true these days. But it wasn't always true, and it shouldn't be true."

What the past state was does not matter a great deal in these issues--today's problems are what stand between us and the food on our tables. If you read that economic growth as not being responsible for funding of higher education, you are similarly incorrect. At the national level it's about having strong soft power and at the personal level about it's about "keeping up with the Joneses" re: income.

"Higher education, especially in the liberal arts, is for training students to become good community members, citizens and leaders."

It was my impression that high schools and parents were the mechanism for indoctrinating youths into community values. Moreover, without playing too hard to personal experience, if my classmates at uni are tomorrow's leaders I'm a great deal concerned.

"It's about giving them the cognitive, rhetorical, and even emotional skills required to solve the hard problems that we face as a society. And there is a lot more to solving those problems than promoting "innovation" or "economic growth"."

What are these "hard problems"? Hunger? Disease? Working boring jobs to shuffle little bits of paper around? I'd wager that the root of your "hard problems" is ultimately scarcity in one form or another, and the only way to address that is through technology, and the only way to get that is through STEM training.

"We subsidize higher education because producing citizens with those skills is valuable to our society."

You echo your given quote here--you instead handwave the "skills" involved whereas the quote specifically suggests that economic growth is the valuable criterion to pick skills with.

"Are liberal arts programs perfect? No. Do they cost too much? Maybe. Would it be good for society to have more people going into STEM fields? Probably. Does all this mean that liberal arts education is "oversold"? Certainly not."

I agree, disagree, agree, and disagree again.

Liberal arts programs seem to consist primarily of a great deal of reading and research, augmented with the professional musings of an elder in the field. Is my impression incorrect? If it is not, is there a particular reason why it costs so much when that material is so cheaply available? I'd appreciate clarification on this matter.

"Indeed, it is rare to see people express just how valuable the liberal arts are, and why."

You know, there is at least one simple explanation that suggests itself for explaining this phenomena...


> It was my impression that high schools and parents were the mechanism for indoctrinating youths into community values. Moreover, without playing too hard to personal experience, if my classmates at uni are tomorrow's leaders I'm a great deal concerned.

Obviously, parents and pre-college education are important (though if they're doing their jobs well, I wouldn't refer to what they're doing as "indoctrination"). But why should education in cognitive, moral, aesthetic, political, etc. skills end with high school graduation? Your second sentence here underscores this point: today's 18-year olds are not fully-formed citizens, ready to become "tomorrow's leaders" without further development.

> What are these "hard problems"? Hunger? Disease? Working boring jobs to shuffle little bits of paper around? I'd wager that the root of your "hard problems" is ultimately scarcity in one form or another, and the only way to address that is through technology, and the only way to get that is through STEM training.

Hunger and disease are hard problems, yes. And of course, having people with technical training is required for solving them, and for solving any problem that stems from some kind of physical scarcity.

But hunger and disease are two hard problems that are particularly easy to conceive, and whose solutions are likewise readily understood: basically, more food and better medicine. Once a problem and its solution are understood, implementing the solution is very often a matter of working out the technical details.

I think that many of the hard problems facing us are not so easily conceived, and their solutions once conceived are far from obvious. For example: what, if anything, should we do about rising income inequality? What consequences does polarization in political discourse have for our ability to address the divergent needs and interests of different groups of people? Which of our social norms are beneficial, and which are harmful? What reasons do we have to support the production of fine art or architecture, and how (if at all) should we do it? What rights and treatment should our institutions afford to those (prisoners, revolutionaries, the merely uninterested) who directly or indirectly undermine them?

I think these questions---and others like them, which we might not even have the language to express yet---are some of the hardest yet most important questions to answer. But they don't boil down to questions of "scarcity" in any obvious way, and I have a hard time seeing how technical training could ever help produce citizens who are capable of answering them in a reflective and reasonable way.

That doesn't mean that STEM training isn't valuable. And as I said here (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3187739) many STEM programs are liberal arts programs that do provide the skills required to answer questions like these.


A lot of people seem very smug about ridiculing liberal arts majors for their life decisions. Please realize that most of us working in software are also lucky enough to be paid well and love what we do, we followed our hearts AND our heads. Imagine a world where there were no software jobs and you needed a PhD in french poetry to get a real job?


Very true. None of my pals who chose software really came in for the money. Though I know a few lawyers and MDs who claim to be in purely for the cash. I don't know should we even wish for that kind of culture (comes with financial prestige...) in STEM-education

But the thing is, there is a lot of people who know they'd rather be playing with children in a kindergarten, doing archeology or reading books all day - but knew that following PURELY your heart is not the smart & rational thing to do when we signed up. Part of the problem is, that libart-schools are filled with kids who thought stuff will just work itself out, like it has always happened for them. Romantically just following ones dreams to the end.

I honestly don't know how else we could be sharing the lesson of pragmatism to the newer generation if we can't point out the consequences of everyone chasing their hopes at the same time. An imaginative person figures out new goals and dreams every day anyhow...


"Part of the problem is, that libart-schools are filled with kids who thought stuff will just work itself out, like it has always happened for them. Romantically just following ones dreams to the end."

Part of it is that, but part of it is our parents giving us incomplete advice. The message is always, "go to college and everything will work itself out" and their kids get the impression that choosing a major is sort of a personal decision that doesn't have any tremendous impact.


The scariest part is that all the people I know who have no confidence in their intelligence ("Oh, I could never major in THAT, I'd have to take Calculus! I hate math!") avoid the science majors and are majoring in education. I think that being a teacher should require a 7-8 year graduate education track similar to a doctor or lawyer, not a quick 4-year liberal arts degree that most people shoot for so that they only work 9 months a year. I'm not hopeful for the future on this one.


The best math teacher I ever had, an inspirational force who was a major reason I got through high school happy and successful, had an undergraduate degree in... something. Not sure it was math, actually.

Definitely no education degree, though. Not even an undergraduate one.

Poor guy couldn't even get an interview today. To see if you're a decent teacher today you must first incur enormous educational debts. Then you try teaching.

Mindless credentialism is a terrible force.


Funny you suggest a track similar to law/med school. In those progressions graduates can expect to make well into the six figures.

If we doubled teachers' pay, lightened their workload, and most importantly did not require teachers to answer so stringently to administrators (and voters and homebuyers) who mainly care about test scores, I would agree this is a good idea.

I have a friend who's a teacher, who works hard, and who is picking up boring temp work for $10/hour almost every weekend so she can get out of town in December. That's just sad to me.

I have heard from people who know that turnover in the classroom is already high, even among people who got a 1 year intensive master's degree in teaching. In principle, I'd like to set the bar higher as you suggest, but the first priority is to make teaching an attractive profession.


How light a workload do teachers need? As it stands now, full time teachers [1] work only 38.5 hours/week (on average).

http://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2008/03/art4full.pdf

I'm not sure how increasing pay, further reducing work hours, and completely eliminating accountability will do anything other than buy teacher's loyalties in an election year.

Incidentally, there is also little evidence that postgraduate degrees in education improve student outcomes. They increase teacher pay (according to union-negotiated pay scales), but don't help the students.

[1] Those who work at least 35 hours/week.


Could you explain your source for the statistic you used on an avg. 38.5 hour work week for teachers? The only relevant information I found in the linked PDF was chart 2, which has the following footnote:

NOTE: The calculations of hours worked are based on data collected about how survey respondents spent “yesterday.” Thus, average weekly work hours are an extrapolation based on the activity for 1 day.

That footnote seems to imply that the avg. hours worked per week calculation may not be very accurate. The linked PDF also doesn't mention if the hours reported are the contracted hours for the teacher or the total hours spent working including work at home and outside of school hours.


I got it by eyeballing Table 10 to get about 5.5 hours worked/day, multiplied by 7.

Assuming the sample is statistically representative, the hours/week calculation is accurate. Across the population as a whole, it is a mathematical identity that:

Sum(Sum(hours(day, teacher), all teachers), days in week) == Sum(Sum(hours(day, teacher), days in week), all teachers)

In a statistical sample, the equality will be approximate due to sampling error, and it's worthy of a note. Maybe the ATUS did a bad job, but in general I assume they do an adequate job absent evidence they did not. Do you have better data?


That footnote seems to imply that the avg. hours worked per week calculation may not be very accurate. The linked PDF also doesn't mention if the hours reported are the contracted hours for the teacher or the total hours spent working including work at home and outside of school hours.

The ATUS asks about work done for pay (or for free if it's for a family-owned business), not work you do beyond the hours you actually get paid for.


The ATUS asks about work done for pay (or for free if it's for a family-owned business), not work you do beyond the hours you actually get paid for.

False.

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.tn.htm

[edit: can't reply to your reply, but:

"This category includes time spent working, doing activities as part of one’s job, engaging in income-generating activities (not as part of one’s job), and job search activities. "Working" includes hours spent doing the specific tasks required of one’s main or other job, regardless of location or time of day. "Work-related activities" include activities that are not obviously work but are done as part of one’s job, such as having a business lunch or playing golf with clients."

]


Where in that document does it give this alternative definition for "for either pay or profit"?

BTW, "These activities are those that persons 'are paid for or will be paid for.'" That does not describe unpaid hours.


I wasn't implying that another 2-3 years of a graduate education degree would solve the problem at hand. Sorry I wasn't clear on that. My intended assertion is that the curriculum for an education degree should be the MOST challenging available, not a fallback for people who don't want to be bothered learning math and science.


You really think we need intelligent people to explain addition to 6 year olds and tell them not to pick their noses?


I certainly don't propose completely eliminating accountability. I think we need to seriously rethink how and to whom teachers are accountable, and how they are evaluated.


"so that they only work 9 months a year"

Which, of course, they don't.


> Which, of course, they don't.

That's right - many of them have summer jobs.


In some places that's possible, but in many places it's pretty impractical. At the high school I attended, summer vacation is June 1 - August 22, but teacher in-service days are: June 2-10 (end of semester wrap-up), July 11-15 (make-up days for students who missed finals), and August 15-19 (pre-semester preparation), which leaves two discontiguous 4-week breaks.


Then we'd definitely have enough quality teachers at the rate the jobs pay. And they'd have no student loan debt either. </sarcasm>


A number of states require postgraduate degrees (and then continuing education) for teachers in order to renew their teaching licenses.


Over this same time period, far more women have been going to college than ever before. I wonder what the numbers would look like with women removed (for the sake of a fair comparison)? I wish it was the case that the hard sciences had just as many women as men, but it is not. At my school, engineering was mostly men, while the liberal arts college was mostly women. I'd think most of the growth in enrollment from women (which is most of the growth, I'd think) is going to the "non-science" fields.


I have a degree in art history and have been applying to graduate school in computer science. I have had ample opportunity to reflect systematically on my choices in undergrad and what I've done since graduating. While early drafts of personal statements have made claims like "mistake", those drafts never make the cut.

No one ever oversold college to me. Liberal arts education went precisely as my professors described, with precisely the economic and social benefits they predicted. No professor, no advisor, no student, no parent, no media outlet ever stated that a liberal arts degree was the path to financial success. At worst, the media has depicted having a college degree as more important than what that degree is in, which remains true. The utility of the paper itself remains quite high.

If we have a STEM graduation problem, I place the blame squarely where it belongs: on STEM departments. I watched as engineering majors routinely failed out, destroyed by calculus-based physics in the first year or thermodynamics in the second. Half our ranks in art history were culled from that group; the successful engineers usually had prior background. That learning curve is often too steep given our secondary education system. The courses demand an amount of time inconsistent with the experience of the average student; coming from the right hand of the SAT distribution, they often did not need to put much work into high school. If we want to increase graduation into STEM fields, we need to redesign our education system taking this objective and the preparation of our students into account.

It is a failure if the best we can do for $100,000 is turn mediocre hackers into programmers, obsessive tinkerers into engineers.


I have an English degree an am wrapping up a CS master's relatively soon (going very part time for essentially free). I've never regretted my English degree, and have actually found that it has provided me a lot of really useful skills working in more technical areas. Not to mention that as you go higher and higher up in the level of classes, the ability to write and communicate becomes increasingly more important.

Everyone one I know that has become reasonably successful with an English degree has also added some type of more pragmatic masters on top of it. IMHO this should be how we view liberal arts, a solid base to build more pragmatic skills off of. Additionally I find when you look at great technical minds you usually find a solid knowledge of the humanities along with it (usually not through formal education of course), the term 'quark' is pull from Finnegan's Wake, Feynman was a passionate fan of Tuvan throat singing, the quoted the bhavagad gita after the first successful nuclear bomb test etc.

Education definitely needs reform but the simple "less humanities more sciences" formula would do potentially more harm than good.


I think that works well for computer science but possibly not so much for other fields. Comp sci seems unique in that it does not require immense background to get moving, unlike mechanical or chemical engineering.

How did the master's go? What was your prior background in comp sci, if any?


The master's is going well so far, just 2 more classes and my thesis to go. I did do a fair amount of catch up before i applied, and actually started taking classes just for fun until I realized how much I loved CS. The main classes I took first were: Intro to CS, Discrete Math, Data Structures, Systems and a few more that weren't as core. I also took a compilers course in the program I eventually enrolled in (just at the local state university) which helped a lot with my application, since it had the reputation of being particularly challenging. I taught myself formal languages, programming language theory and few others (it's actually funny because I now teach a section of a plt class even though I've never formally taken one)

I agree that CS is easier for non-technical majors to get started in, but really for any field there is only a handful of truly core courses, the rest can be caught up on as you go. The biggest issue with humanities is the lack of math (although as I've played catch up I'm really surprised how many technical people really don't have as strong a background in math as they should.)

I would have balked at the idea when I was an undergrad,but I really feel that all college grads should be proficient in calc 1-3, linear algebra, and prob & statistics. If every English major was comfortable with those areas they would have the foundation to go in pretty much any direction they wanted. The cultural separation between 'technical' and 'non-technical' people in general is a huge problem, we need more people that can do both.

Really if you want to cut down on the number of people graduating with huge debt and unable to find a job, make college harder. My passion for English undergrad would have been enough to make me push through the math reqs I proposed above, but there were plenty of people in my classes who would have definitely be driven out by them. Knowledge of Shakespeare and Probability are equally important to being 'educated' imho, many college grads have knowledge of neither.


STEM education isn't for everyone. At my college, they've made it too easy- I know someone graduating with a CS degree who couldn't accurately state the purpose of a compiler. The people I know who actually dropped out were too discouraged by failing one class early on in college. We need a system where retaking a class is considered as normal rather than as a failure.

Failing a class you didn't understand so you retake it is infinitely better than passing a class without understanding core concepts. Physics is calculus-based, and to teach it otherwise is to provide a lacking education. GPA isn't important- the point of an education is to learn and develop skills.

What I find more problematic than STEM drop-out rates is the attitude of many liberal arts students that math is something you can either do or can't do. Math is something learned, studied, and often requires a bit of a struggle to understand. Saying "I'm incapable of math" without ever having tried is delusional.


The irony of STEM education, especially engineering, is that the people who design the curriculum would not think an acceptable end user outcome is "if it fails, buy another and try again". They would redesign it until you got the desired result consistently.


This was certainly the case back when I was studying engineering. The introductory classes were "sink or swim" and graded on a steep curve. The net effect was "Let's take the students with the highest math/science test scores and encourage half of them to drop out of STEM programs."

Meanwhile, most liberal arts coursework began with "a gentle introduction to X". I did well in the math/science classes, but the workload was enormous, and everyone recognized that the non-STEM students were having a more enjoyable time.


I completely agree with this:

> That learning curve is often too steep given our secondary education system . . . we need to redesign our education system taking this objective and the preparation of our students into account.

However, I vehemently disagree with this:

> If we want to increase graduation into STEM fields . . . I place the blame squarely where it belongs: on STEM departments

No, no, no, no, no! This would be a microcosm of the very issue we're talking about.

"Graduation rate" is meaningless. We want to increase the population who are STEM-literate. Like it or not, physics is calculus-based. Thermodynamics is important. And, certainly, by the time people are adults and have gone through over a decade of education, it should be within reach.

I don't blame the STEM departments at all, and would be aghast if they started churning out STEM-lite graduates as the result of some misguided new policy to increase graduation rates.


I think a quote from the thread on the article about physics education applies here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3187609

"there's a significant difference between "weeder" classes and later classes that actually focus on understanding. Calculus courses are the worst offender I can think of. They're not about imparting you with a complete understanding of the relevant mathematics, but much more about whether you can stomach being made to memorize lots of pattern-matching heuristics to do endless reams of tedious problems. Contrast this with an upper division or graduate course: they're much more focused on concepts, patterns, and understanding. The curriculum even admits this: they have the "advanced calculus" upper-division courses for actually teaching the underlying math."

Weeder classes for the sake of weeding students is not a good thing. Teaching rigorous material and expecting students to know it is not the same thing as weeding. The problem is that too many STEM departments use weeder courses.


I don't think anyone is talking about creating "STEM-lite" grads but maybe there are qualified people who for one reason or another can't pick up calculus as fast as the school wants. Or didn't get a complete enough background in high school. Or is 18 years old and living away from home for the first time and just made a few bad decisions.

Failing a class first semester really puts pressure on changing majors. Students go into he program hearing that a lot of people will drop, do poorly, and are encouraged to drop. Someone earlier said schools should try and "weed in" students rather than weed out.

Departments need to take their fair share of blame in creating an environment that can be miserable for even the successful students. Not all the blame, but some.


I have to wonder if STEM courses that have routinely have tests that set the curve at 40% is really a good thing or not.


You quote me inaccurately where you disagree, I actually said:

>If we have a STEM graduation problem, I place the blame squarely where it belongs: on STEM departments.

And then proceed to state that we need a redesign. The comment was already too long, so I left out any detail about what that would be. I have in mind a long-cycle plan that culminates in a master's in 5-6 years, using early semesters to bring people up to the workload level and spending the additional time gained getting fundamentals (calculus, thermo, statistics, structure of computer programs, etc.) right. We can then proceed with the 4+2 or 5 year models often used in architecture.


I apologize for misquoting you. I think your solution sounds like a reasonable way for universities to allow students to recover from a poor high school education. As I type that, I realize that's important. My concern is it draws out the education period of someone's life even further.

I'm looking at this from the perspective that people should have a solid grasp of calculus and the other fundamentals you mention in high school. Currently many do not. One solution is to fix the problem at the university by giving students extra time to learn the fundamentals there. The other solution is to find a way for students to learn them back in high school.

What happens in your plan if someone still doesn't learn the fundamentals when they're given the extra semesters in your long-cycle plan? Are they dropped from the program? Are they given extra tutoring? Why can't these things happen earlier, and if so, isn't that similar to the system we have now?


Why would anyone ever be dropped from a program? If they want to withdraw, they can. What this system does is it flattens the learning curve by drawing it out some but using its still substantial late trajectory to grant master's degrees without a loss of quality.


I agree that the humanities can be very valuable for all kinds of reasons, and people with this academic background certainly can be successful in the job market. There are plenty of examples.

But you know all those articles fretting about how recent college grads are struggling these days? They almost all have a quote from some student who says "I went to college, I studied hard, I did everything I was supposed to do..." and then reveals that this jobless graduate with 50k+ in student loans majored in film, or literature, or political science.

I have trouble believing these students weren't at least somewhat aware of what they were getting themselves into with those majors. These quotes never come from a computer science or chemical engineering major. And while I understand these majors don't appeal to everyone, I was a double English/Math major (and I took a lot of CS-courses), and really, the Math and CS was much more difficult - I couldn't get away with a few all nighters writing a paper a few times a semester, it took daily, consistent effort, and a lot of it. Like you, I took my humanities seriously, and I'm really glad I did. In many ways, I think that the English major has been more helpful in my career as a software developer than my math and even my CS classes.

But I don't think you can say "I did everything I was supposed to do, and I still can't get a job" if you majored in "Slavic Literature". People have known for decades that slavic literature majors have trouble getting jobs.

I graduated 20+ years ago, and even then we had that old joke:

the science major asks "why does it work" the engineering major asks "how can I make it work?" the finance major asks "how much will it cost to make it work?" the english major asks "would you like fries with that?"


I don't know. I've asked my wife about why she got her degree in English, and she claims no one ever explained to her that wasn't a degree that was likely to lead to a lucrative job. Whereas I was well familiar with the "fries with that" joke, and never seriously considered majoring in music (despite my love of it) precisely because I felt it wouldn't be a wise financial decision. Difference in upbringing, I guess.


One thing that is left out of this discussion is protective parenting. When you're sheltered and protected until you're an adult, you are, in effect, prepped and ready for college. You're ready to be told what to do, ready to follow the course requirements, and do what the other students do.

A lot of the commenters on here keep saying how students would be better off trying their hands at startups or reading/self-educating on the side--basically anything but taking a huge debt load on for a poor investment. You're asking people to think for themselves and find their own road.

When you've been sheltered and protected your whole life, you're not ready to find your own road! You're ready to follow the rules.

Remember, Gen Y was a generation that was allowed A LOT less freedom than previous generations. Kids who got to fool around on bikes, with tools, out in the woods or around the neighborhood on their own, are anomalies.

Personal Anecdote: I grew up mountain biking by myself out the hills around my town a lot from the time I was 12. I had a crew of friends who's parents also let them mountain bike and camp by themselves. But most parents didn't. Most kids never got any sense of independence or the chance to pull off their own little projects.

So how is someone supposed to go from basically being babysat by videogames/TV their whole childhood to winging startups or figuring out their own road through life? Most don't have the basic life skills in place to allow them to do so. So...they go to college. If they were lucky, they got a skill out of it that then allowed them to get a job. But if they didn't, then they go to grad school and bury themselves in even more debt.

Parenting Gurus are waking up to the problem of oversheltering and publishing books like Free Range Kids and 50 dangerous things you should let your kid do.


40k people got comp sci degrees in 1985, and in 2009 that number has not changed! That's shocking.


Is it actually "non-science in particular"? From what I can tell from job/income statistics (depending on how you interpret them), the college degree is actually most valuable for people who intend to pursue non-STEM careers. The unemployment rates are much lower, and average salaries much higher, if you compare degree-holders to non-degree-holders among people pursuing non-STEM careers.

Meanwhile, in computer science (to take my field), the degree has some economic value, but I don't think nearly as much--- you can get a high-paying tech job just by having a good github "resume". There's no real way to do the equivalent in, say, history. You can write a bunch of freelance historical newsletters, but HR screens want to see a degree in something, anything; doesn't matter what, but must be a degree.


I think CS is somewhat of an anomaly among STEM fields in this regard. A degree is an absolute must in, for instance, Civil Engineering.


This is a popular theme these days. I think the college education used to serve several purposes: a) serving the Liberal (big L) ideal of creating the sort of well rounded, educated, informed citizen upon which democracy depends, b) vocational training, and c) indirectly, signalling fitness in a modern workforce.

A) and b) aren't totally at odds, but they're not exactly aligned. When the economy was healthy enough and tuition was low enough, that misalignment was basically overshadowed by the signalling value of a degree. Even your liberal arts degree would show you were of value to corporate america. But now, the misalignment is becoming magnified by high tuitions, the poor economy, and increasingly specialized and technical job requirements. You can achieve a) via your philosophy degree, but you'll never find a job. So the signalling value of a non-technical degree has been largely lost (top ivy-league schools excepted).

I don't have a good answer, but I'd argue that we shouldn't abandon the notion that education should be in part about creating a well rounded citizenry capable of critical thinking in pursuit of more economically grounded college education.


A lot of the discussion here has broken down to arguing the merits of a liberal arts vs. STEM education. I think that that line is a purely personal decision, and the real argument here is career driven vs. "pursuit of knowledge" driven education.

I attend a liberal arts school, but we are a career driven school, almost to the point of being conservatory style. I take significantly more credits in my degree program than I even have the option of in general ed requirements. I spend more of my day in meetings for co-curricular and outside paid work than I do in class, by design. Yes, I do take classes called "The Artist and the Making of Meaning" that seem to have no...meaning, but I also already have enough connections in my field to secure me a job that I would be happy in out of college in at least three cities, if not more.


I don't get why we as a society push so many kids into college telling them it's the only way to get a good job then laugh at them when they graduate because they got a degree in under water basket weaving.

They call it further education and not job training for a reason. College was never meant to train a person for a specific field but to make a person a more well rounded individual which would appeal to an employer.

It's no longer being sold that way yet it's still being ran that way which is why we are seeing a huge issue. For profits are taking advantage of people because they appear to offer the job training you would not get at a regular 4 year. Also thousands of recent graduates who are now working at places like wal-mart and the like are scratching their heads because truthfully they were lied to.


Here in Australia, liberal arts majors are subsidized less than STEM majors. We also have a largely subsidized public university system in general - we have just one private university (but many private colleges).

As an example of what this means, the University of Queensland located down the road from me is often ranked in the top 50 worldwide.

Science courses at UQ are about half the cost of liberal arts majors.

I can study there and place tuition on what's essentially an interest-free (plus inflation) government loan that I only have to begin paying back (at 4-8% of my gross salary, depending on earnings) when/if my salary goes above ~$47,000.


When did that happen? When I did my degree (mechanical engineering at UQ, as it happens) there were 3 HECS bands - liberal arts was the cheapest, engineering/science/business was the middle band, and law/medicine was the highest.

I understood that the difference in bands was due to the difference in earning potential of the graduates.


Oh wow! I've just looked - and you are correct. This has blown me away. That said, I swear I've read (somewhere) that arts courses are subsidized less. I wonder if that simply means arts courses are substantially cheaper to run?

Thanks for picking that up for me.


>"in 2009 we graduated just 2,480 students with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology — about the same number as 25 years ago. Who will solve the problem of antibiotic resistance?"

I suspect that the professional earning potential within microbiology of a person with a bachelor's degree is probably lower than their earning potential within the food service industry - and the odds of a person with only a bachelor's degree being put in a position which allows substantial research into a major problem are very slim, indeed.


I am very skeptical of the criteria for which the author evaluates a successful career.

You cannot evaluate the success of an artist in the same way as an engineer. First, Wages are an extremely inadequate measure for the contribution art makes to society.

And looking at "innovations that drive economic growth" as a measure of the collective success of college graduates takes a seriously narrow view of the contributions necessary to foster a healthy economy.


> First, Wages are an extremely inadequate measure for the contribution art makes to society.

While wages may not be the right measure, the amount of money that people are willing to pay seems somewhat useful.

Most "art" is crap and society would be better off if most "artists" were grocery baggers instead. (No, I'm not harshing on grocery baggers - I'm just picking a job that "artists" look down on.)

Yes, that might affect their self-esteem, but maybe they'll learn the dignity of honest work.


Making art is not honest work?


> Making art is not honest work?

Making crap art isn't.


Saying that the majority of "art" is crap is a very subjective opinion.


Are you claiming that there's an objective definition of "good art"? If so, let's see it.

In any event, "subjective" doesn't imply wrong.

Are you claiming that a majority of art is not crap? Does your argument avoid the "no true Scotsman" fallacy?


How can you claim that the majority of art as crap? Did you do a survey? What is your definition of art?


Then who would make the art assets for all of our Web 2.0 sites and mobile apps?


It's pretty obvious that the cost benefit analysis of getting a non-technical/non-business degree shows that it's not worth it, unless you can pay for it in cash. Getting $100k+ in student loans for a degree in which you can't pay off quickly will only lead to years of indebtedness.

At the current prices that students have to pay, it's simply not worth it. If I had a kid that wanted to go into liberal arts, I would suggest that they take a technical degree, and do night school for their liberal arts education, and I would forbid them from getting student loans.

As the old Wall Street adage goes, the cure for high prices is high prices. At some point, people will stop sending their kids to college if the prices keep increasing like this, and then something will have to be done about it. Unfortunately, it means that the current generation of kids will become the new debt slaves until this education crisis is stopped.


lets not forget that all this increased enrollment increases the price of education and puts a strain on resources for all of us. Not only were there slightly less comp sci graduates but they grossly overpaid for their education compared to graduates in 1985.

One of the biggest bummers about that chart is the increase in debt it represents.


False. Several complex factors are at play here, but supply/demand effects are not the root cause. This Forbes article does a good job of explaining things. http://www.forbes.com/2010/08/01/rising-cost-education-opini...

TLDR; it turns out that comparing educational costs relative to the inflation rate is inaccurate. Efficiency gains in almost every other domain have artificially lowered the overall inflation rate. Artisinal fields like education haven't had a 10x efficiency increase (we don't teach students any faster than we did in the past), so their rates have increased at the true rate of inflation (or what the inflation rate would be if no efficiency gains happened in other domains).


2 things.

1) I don't know how you think you can start a discussion by shouting the word false at someone.

2) While I should definitely have made my post seem more of a conjecture than a fact the article you link to is also mainly conjecture. Be it though conjecture of two experienced men.

When I went to college, nearly all the programs were impacted. Because of this the schools needed to hire more (good) teachers. Teachers don't have a bulk rate. All of the schools facilities experience more wear and tear and need to be upgraded to handle more humans. The school i went to is still impacted. More students than the school can handle increases tuition rates for all. You don't pay less for an art degree than a comp sci degree.


I'm curious about this, how does the price of education increase because of increased enrollment? I just figure when lot's of people go to Walmart that doesn't increase the cost of their goods.

Or are you inferring that colleges could fallback on their endowments with fewer students? I'm not sure many institutions could rely on this.


I have and am earning some of those "useless" liberal arts degrees – an Associate's in Social Science and a Bachelors of Science in Journalism.

However, unlike most of the computer science, business, and engineering majors on my campus, my degree has put me in a position to manage an organization of dozens of people where we ship a product four to six days a week, one that is consumed and heavily scrutinized by thousands of people.

I've also written, deployed, and improved software as part of my education that actually gets used at scale in the real world, not as a side project but as a requirement of my degree.

As a result of that, I'm going to leave college with more real-world experience than most of my peers.

Every college degree is what you make of it. Doing problem sets doesn't automatically enable you to really do anything, and studying in the humanities or liberal arts doesn't prevent you from doing something worthwhile, either. The main difference between people who have a valuable college experience and those who don't is whether the individual took advantage of the resources they had to make it valuable.

Also, this doesn't really need to be said, but without the liberal arts, engineering is useless. You can build bridges all day long, but someone still has to sell the thing to politicians and taxpayers and make the thing attractive enough to convince people to pay the toll.


I really dislike posts like this that attempt to pigeonhole every college experience into "college." There are such a huge gamut of academic experiences, but whenever "college" is is addressed, its usually boiled down to "humanities majors at large, expensive 4 year colleges."

This, of course, is one of many options. The kind of institution you attend is just as important as whether you're a STEM or Humanities major. Size, core curriculum, intellectual environment, difficulty, class style, and all the other factors that separate colleges are huge factors on what you get out of college.

What should you get out of college? Often, a posited counter-experience is four years in the business world. Which would be useful in the short term, but when are you going to radically improve your reading and writing? You're never going to get the chance to devote yourself, 100%, to reading, writing, and learning.

Of course, the reason liberal arts gets a bad rap is majors have lost sight of reading and writing, and have turned into a pseudo-technical fields in larger institutions. A proper liberal arts degree gives you the same skills regardless of what you major, which is why liberal arts students like myself at liberal arts colleges scoff at this categorization by major...I don't care about majors.

Conclusion: Liberal arts degrees are worth the money...if they're done properly.


I agree that it's been oversold. I met many people in school who couldn't compare and contrast essays that were in direct opposition to one another. They shouldn't have been in school to begin with. I'm not sure I agree about the science part though. Isn't the pay for scientists rather low for the most part? Seems like my scientist friends are always poor.

Seems like we could use more engineers though.


Pay for scientists and engineers at the PhD level does tend to be low when you consider the difficulty, time, and attrition rate of these degree paths relative to the professions (JD, MBA, MD, etc). There was a big RAND study that pretty much concluded that the "shortage" of PhD's in science and engineering is market driven (ie., there are better options for very smart people).

However, at the undergraduate level, I'd say that science and engineering degrees are the best choice, provided you're inclined to do this kind of thing (I don't think there's any point in grinding through a major if you hate it). I really liked Marc Andressen's career advice on this subject, where he strongly recommends technical degrees. His point is that these degrees enable you to enter the workforce in a high-impact way from the start. I've found the notion that you'll be pigeonholed as a "techie" to be wildly overblown - instead, my ability to program out of school (and understanding of industrial engineering) allowed me to get deeply into really important business processes and meet all kinds of higher-ups because I had something valuable to offer them. Rather than being putting me in a box, it was immensely career expanding.

Andressen also talks about becoming a double/triple "threat" - combining valuable skills in different areas. Ie, being an investment banker with a deep understanding of molecular biology or a physician with a deep understanding of information technology systems. You're really unusual if you do this.

So all in all, I can't recommend STEM degrees at the undergrad level more highly - but I become more skeptical of the value of these degrees as you move into MS or especially PhD level. BTW, I'm not knocking the value of a PhD in CS, especially if you meet a lot of great people in your program. I just think that STEM degrees are the clear winners at the undergrad level, whereas professional degrees (or maybe no more degrees, there's plenty to learn outside of universities) might be a better choice at the grad level.


Isn't the pay for scientists rather low for the most part? Seems like my scientist friends are always poor.

Academic scientists have low wages, but high non-wage compensation (after they win the tenure tournament).

Scientists tend to have much higher pay (and lower non-wage comp) when they enter the private sector.


I'd like to see the gender dimension here. How were these ratios changed by increasing numbers of women attending college?


I think the problem goes even further than the article advertised. As someone that has been un/fortunate to go through top eng school and then law school there is a bigger issue at play for even really smart people. A lot of very smart people get sold on the dream of a cushy law job after 3 years of what really is a 1/2 decent educational process. Though many in better times would get decent jobs most would grow complacent instead of hungry and settle for a mediocre job. And this is talented people that if hungry could be achieving much. Schools in general are a sales sham, schools that offer a potential of high rewards are that much more of a sham since most of the sales efforts are already done for them


I don't have the answer, but I'm glad this topic is finally being discussed properly.

More people need to take the realistic view of spending time in college for what it will get them. The almost obligatory need for people to do any type of higher education devalues the worth of all degree qualifications.

Moreover, education is ripe for startup innovation. Is there really a need to x,000 community colleges when a lecturer from Harvard can be streamed online in HD in real time to thousands or millions of students?


Sorry, have to agree with the general sentiment that it's not so much "College" that's been oversold, as it is liberal arts degree programs that won't likely lead to a "good" paying job that has a decent ROI.

That's not to say that education in the arts isn't valuable, it's jut not as immediately useful and measurable to the bottom line from the perspective of an employer.


Oversold is the wrong word -- college is overpriced. Oversold implies that not going to college is a good option, and it isn't. Overpriced on the other hand implies that there's way too much money being charged today for the same quality of education that was much cheaper years ago.


I think that advisors at private 4-year schools should have a responsibility to strongly advise against a poor choice of major compared against a bad student loan situation.


The article made the point that 50% more students are enrolling in college, but amount of students in the STEM fields remained constant. Does anyone know why this is?


Journalism is a smart choice of a perfect job. Nowadays you don't even have to investigate and think.


As a college-level instructor (with a PhD in those -- gasp -- liberal arts), might I suggest two things?

First, the critical thinking I learned reading poetry better prepared me for business management, web development, and entrepreneurship than any of my Chemistry courses (I was also a Chemistry minor in Undergrad). I'd be happy to go into the details, but this doesn't seem like the forum for that explanation.

And second, again, as an instructor, one of the bigger problems in the humanities is grade inflation and a sense of entitlement to A's. Whereas in a Calculus class, grading is much easier to quantify (i.e. get X number of questions right on a test, end up with Y grade), grading papers is a less standardized practice. The result is overwhelming grade inflation (I can't tell you the number of students I have who quite literally break down in tears when they receive B's). Perhaps both the utility of humanities degrees and the propensity for being willing to challenge oneself in a STEM course would be increased if getting higher grades wasn't perceived as being easier in the humanities.


As a college level instructor, albeit of the grad student variety, I'd tend to agree and wrote a post on the grade inflation issue: http://jseliger.com/2011/04/02/grade-inflation-what-grade-in... . Basically, almost no one has an incentive at the institutional level. Professors are mostly rewarded for publishing; deans and other administrators for keeping students happy or at least not complaining; students and parents want high marks; and employers might want lower grade inflation but have little leverage.

So we get grade inflation. There are virtually zero rewards and many, substantial costs for me as an individual to reduce grade inflation in the classes I teach, and that's true of virtually everyone else.


I found that while my CS studies were useful in setting up new software/internet ventures, it has been the research skills I learned from studying history & economics and the strategy & analysis from business management, that has made a world of difference in my success or failure as an entrepreneur & business owner.


I don't know what school you went to, but the engineering school I went to put more of a focus on problem solving using relevant technology and as a result I know how to do very intense research, strategy building, and analysis from the constant nights of trying to build something after the teacher says "Here are x, y, and z components, now build this on Tuesday."

I would go as far to argue that the problem solving skills I've learned in my one year of studying at a technical institute far outweigh the problem solving skills you've learned in two years of study at your school.

I think the problem is bigger then liberal arts vs STEM, and has more to do with the kind of education students receive vs. what degree they are going with. I've switched to a community college very recently to pursue a math degree, but have found the education to be very dumb and drab, with the teachers giving you exact instructions on how to do everything, as opposed to my previous school's philosophy of learning the tools and then applying them by using your own brain.


I went to the top CS uni in my country and its well-regarded internationally. Though CS and Engineering are two separate faculties and I dare say the problem solving skills taught in engineering courses were usually better.

I'd agree that skill development is far more important than degree and, along with attitude and perceived potential, its what I look for when recruiting new employees.

I've studied degrees in three countries on three continents (and taught at uni in two additional countries) and have found teaching style can destroy otherwise great potential in students. Usually the style reflects the country's perception of itself and will be tough to change. A great example is China and the hammering down of any student who sticks their head up too high to question the prof. I love being questioned and quizzed, but took weeks to get students to do this in China and was then told off by the head of faculty and the political censor. Even though they knew I'd do this when I started teaching and supposedly it was why I was hired.


I understand your premise and don't have any rebuttal to it that would include facts and/or figures. But one thought did pop into my mind when reading your comment.

I wonder if your feeling is a prevailing thought/sentiment among liberal arts professors. And if it is then why don't you and your ilk just give out more B's and C's? So what if they cry? If you think they deserve the B or C then that is the grade.

But what do I know I only have a degree in Electrical Engineering.


Because in a grade-inflated world, the professor who gives B's is doing a disproportionate amount of damage to his/her student's prospects. If you give a student who "does B work" by your standards a "B", you're actually denying that student the positive outcomes that would have accrued to a B student 50 years ago. Professors have to act in unison on this front, and even then, you're giving people who went to school 10 years ago an advantage.


I understand your premise and don't have any rebuttal to it that would include facts and/or figures. But one thought did pop into my mind when reading your comment.

See the books Academically Adrift, Beer and Circus, The Marketplace of Ideas, and, to a lesser extent, the post I wrote above. Grade inflation is sufficiently well documented that most academics now take it for granted, especially because they see it in action.


Have to agree with Neutronicus here. The prevailing example would be the "But I'll never get into med school/law school if you don't raise my B+ to an A-" argument which I hear at least three times a semester.

This gives us two solutions. First, is to convince naive kids that it's OK to be something other than a lawyer or doctor. Seriously, any students reading this comment, pay attention: There are plenty of other wonderful (and lucrative) professions in the world. If you genuinely care about medicine or law, you should certainly pursue those degrees. But if you're only concerned with career earnings and/or prestige, well, I have plenty of out-of-work lawyer friends.

Second, the academic industry (and it is an industry) needs to place less emphasis on grading and more on education.

I can hear the objections now: "Wait... you mean schools don't emphasize education?" Sigh... we'll save that for another discussion.


The problem is that assessment is a very valuable function of universities. Industry relies on them as a filter. I don't actually believe that industry values the training universities provide as much as it values the assessment it doesn't have to do because of universities.

The universities are thus in sort of a bind. They do an enormous amount of assessment, but the people who benefit the most from accurate assessment, namely industry, don't bear the costs of it. Their actual customers, the students who are ostensibly paying for an education, in essence demand an inaccurately positive assessment instead, because it achieves what an education achieves (get far enough in the door at a corporation that it would be a pain to fire you) with less labor input from the students.

The universities can't just stop focusing on assessment - like I said, I think it's actually more valuable than education. They need to be replaced by some industry-funded institution whose sole incentive is to provide accurate assessment.


Industry doesn't rely on GPA as a filter. They rely on interviews, past projects and work experience. Anything above a 3.0 (which is pretty low) and no need to worry.

The problem is with law school, medical school, and so forth. That is where GPA is seen as the ultimate-judge-of-worth rather than a mildly-interesting-but-completely-insignificant-number like it should be.


That graph in the OP is dishonest. Here's the actual data that wasn't cherry picked (and taken directly from the same data source as the OP, using the excel file provided by the US government and charted in excel):

http://i.imgur.com/YTFMo.png

Here are the tables from the report, if you'd like to do your own analysis: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/2010menu_tables.asp


I don't understand, the graph that you linked too appears to demonstrate exactly the same effect that the OP graph is. Could you explain what was cherry picked?


Another point (perhaps not what the parent meant): the author pulls out computer science from the mid-80s peak.

See here: http://imgur.com/XUCku


If we look at the table[1] upon which the article bases its figure we see that the proportion of liberal arts degrees has been steadily around 38% since the 1970s. In addition, the same table reveals that business has held the plurality at around 20% for the entirety of that same period. Visual arts has gone from 4% to 6% in that same period.

[1]: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d10/tables/dt10_282.asp


Thank you for the additional information! That chart did seem somewhat limited.




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