Making Epistemological Sense Out of Existential Madness

Alan Milner

Alan Milner
Florida, USA
October 12
Senior Mortgage Analyst
Brooklyn-born, graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and City College of New York. Background includes advertising, public relations, journalism, marketing, organizational development and fund raising and, for the past 15 years, mortgage banking. You can still find my poetry at sagemerlin.

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AUGUST 2, 2011 2:52PM

Budget Whacks: Student Loans

Rate: 3 Flag

One of the provisions of the compromise budget plan is a whack to the graduate students of America that will cost them dearly as they try to cope with their student loans.

The Obama Administration's concession on funding student loans for graduate students adds approximately $200 a month to the average graduate student's debt service costs which, if their graduate degrees were really worth what they were supposed to be worth, might be tolerable.

The problem is that, unless that graduate degree is in medicine, law, accounting, engineering or education, that graduate degree is practically valueless in terms of improved lifetime earnings, compounding the decades-old exaggerations of the value of undergraduate degrees.

The real question is what is a college education really worth, and the answer is "not as much as you think."

A 2008 study by Skidmore economist Sandy Baum demonstrated that the real value of a college education, in constant dollars, was around $300,000, not $1 million, after you discount inflation, the lost wages not earned during those college years, and the future value of the amount spent on a college education if invested in safe, high-yield bonds (if there is such a thing anymore.) Over an average working career of 40 years, in real dollars, the added value of a college degree over a high school diploma works out to around $7,500 a year.

Even Baum's appraisal falls short of the truth because studies have demonstrated that the average 1970 college graduate has changed careers an average of five to seven times since graduating from college, with each change putting that college student further and further away from the added value of the education obtained in a discipline the former student has already walked away from.

Engineering students are told that a degree in engineering didn't mean that you were an engineer. It only meant that you might have the capacity to become an engineer after several years' worth of on-the-job training.

The unpleasant truth of the matter is that the push toward universal college education was always a Utopian dream that has become a nightmare for millions of American families as they struggle to cope with snowballing college costs in a recessionary economy.

Most of the professions we esteem the most operate on an apprenticeship model. Medical education really begins when the student become an intern, because that's where the on-the-job training begins, and that training is very physical. Doctors need stamina in order to meet the demands of their profession, and the only way to develop stamina is under stress, working long hours under difficult conditions. Young lawyers go through the same apprenticeship system as they move up the ladder from apprentice, to associate, and eventually partner.

Apprenticeship systems work because they introduce the learner to the real life of their chosen profession and guide them through the process of acclimating themselves to the demands of those professions.

College doesn't do that. It doesn't even come close. The demands placed on college students are miniscule compared to the demands of the work place.

So, clearly, apprenticeship models prepare workers for the real world far better than college does. If that were not true, doctors would go into practice immediately upon graduation from medical school.

Would you want to have your surgery performed by a doctor who was fresh out of medical school, and had never been in a real life operating room scenario before – or would you prefer to have your gunshot wound treated by an Army medic who has had three years of experience treating gunshot wounds?

(There was a period, between wars, when the lack of an active theater resulted in a shortage of trauma surgeons. This is no longer the case. We train our trauma surgeons in Afghanistan and Iraq now.)

What is increasingly obvious is that, just as newspapers are an outmoded mechanism for gathering and disseminating news, so-called institutions of higher learning are an outmoded mechanism for dispersing knowledge.

If you spent four years diligently pursuing a wisely designed reading program, on your own, you would end up much better educated than someone who spent the same four years at all but a small handful of colleges where real education is actually going on.

But reading alone only makes you well-read. It doesn't make you educated. For that, you need interaction....which is more than amply provided by the internet, if used appropriately.

In a traditional classroom, a teacher asks a question. Students raise their hands. The teacher calls upon a student. The student gives an answer, and the teacher gives the student positive or negative feedback on the basis of the student's answer. In this interaction, only that one student has had an authentic educational experience, a visceral experience formed by the teacher's approval or disapproval of the student's contribution. The other students in the class are merely onlookers. They do not get that visceral experience. The one student will go through life remembering that interchange. The others usually don't.

In an electronic classroom, the teacher asks a question, and all of the students in the class simultaneously respond (or not as the case may be), and each student gets the same kind of visceral feedback because the teacher is using an automated system that parses each student's answer and evaluates its validity.

In this situation, there's really no need for a classroom at all. As a matter of fact, there's no need for the teacher either. The process could be completely automated, or it could be supervised by a teacher who could teach many more students more efficiently, and more effectively, at a lower per unit cost.

If the objective of a college education is to teach, this is a more effective system. If the objective of the college system is to provide employment for teachers and administrators, it's a loss leader, because the economics of higher education, like the economics of medicine, are upside down and backwards.

In both education and medicine, we pay for the effort, not the results. Doctors get paid whether or not the patient lives. Teachers get paid whether or not the students learn. That's upside down. In both cases, the school or the hospital often get paid before the results of their work are known. That's backwards.

When you enroll in a college baccalaureate program, you're buying a pig in a poke. Even at the most prestigious institutions, you don't know whether or not you will actually get a good education. The professor may never show up, and you find yourself learning from a graduate student a few years older than you are....and not much more experienced. Or, the once illustrious professor may have gone into an intellectual decline, and what you get is the soup of the soup, rather than the education you sought when you signed up for the course.

The vagaries of a college education are well-known to everyone who has passed through those mills, but these vagaries simply don't exist in computerized education because systems exist that will generate immediate feedback to administrators when the students in a class aren't getting the education they enrolled to get.

Surely, this vision of education has both Darwinian and Orwellian considerations to ponder. The Darwinian dilemma is that this kind of education might very well freeze our knowledge base at a certain level of development as the system reaches its capacity for the management of information, which is a known, practical limit based upon the hardware and software in use. The Orwellian aspect is that whomever controls the knowledge machine also controls the beliefs of the students it produces.

Those caveats aside, the reality is that computerized education is already here and, just as newspapers and news magazines will disappear from the newsstands and appear instead only online, so, too, will computerized education replace conventional classroom eduation because it is more efficient, more effective, and more economical for both the student and the society involved.

The other side of the coin is that societies that do not embrace these changes will find it increasingly difficult to compete in the world.

Right now, many graduate programs subsist on foreign students who come here, get their degrees, and then, in many cases, take their new knowledge home with them. How many of them will bother to make the trip if they can consume their entire course of study, online, from home, at a much lower cost?

That said, Obama's abandonment of college students is just the tip of the iceberg we've just run into. Over the next few weeks, we are going to find out that what we really bought was a pig in a poke, and the ultimate outcome is going to be misery for millions, and millions for the miserly.

The never-ending recession will inevitably have an impact on higher education. State universities are under pressure because their states are under pressure. Endowments have shrunk as the investments in which they were couched deflated. Yes, many portfolios are back to where they were before the crash, but that's zero growth over a five year period.

Most importantly, college education, once seen as the ladder to success is rapidly becoming another shoot to poverty. The constant drum-banging in support of this illusion will cause millions of families to impoverish themselves for an additional $7,500 a year. That's not chicken feed, but it's not guaranteed either....because many of the jobs that this generation of college students are training for now simply will not exist any longer by the time they are ready to enter the job market in earnest.

Higher education has always been part of the American con job, the myth of upward mobility, but it's becoming obvious that college is just another sideshow in the bread and circus game.

In her comment on this piece, my friend Myriad makes a very important point:  the entire structure of university education dates back to a day when books were very precious and not available to the average person, hence the development of large lecture halls where professors could expound, and students could write down what they said, creating, in effect, their own textbooks.

 A similar process took place in music, where the chamber music ensemble was the de rigour for composers, but they played only for the nobility.  As the middle class developed a taste for music, larger performance halls were needed to accomodate those new customers, and a larger orchestras were needed to fill those halls with sound. The need for greater volume also forced the development of the harpsichord into the piano, and instigated the development of several new instruments and fostered the adoption of others - such as the horns, used mainly in warfare and hunting - from other segments of society.  

(PS: I should note that my college education, at CCNY ('70), cost me a grand total of $296 for student fees, plus living expenses, which I covered with scholarships that were then available to an average student and by working my way through school at the New York Post. Once I realized that I was making more at the Post than the teachers in my journalism program at City were making teaching me what I already knew, so I left – after five years – without the degree....and I've never missed it. I loved CCNY, because just being there was an education...but that was then, and this is now. I wouldn't pay the current rates to go to school there and I don't understand why anyone does.)

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WASHINGTON — The deal to raise the debt ceiling includes a $17 billion increase in spending for so-called Pell grants, scholarships for low-income college students, and it would protect the program from cuts until 2013.

But the agreement would eliminate federally subsidized student loans for graduate and professional students, something that could affect the cost of education for an estimated 6 million students seeking advanced degrees.

More than 19 million undergraduate students are eligible for Pell grants in the coming academic year, according to federal statistics. The average grant is $5,500.

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As far as I'm concerned, low income undergraduates have priority over graduate students.

Subsidized student loans have had a perverse effect in allowing Universities to continually raise prices.
Sometimes I thing the stupidest thing I ever did was to go to college.
In the economy we are falling into (out of?) one might be much better off to invest in survivalist training, or at least in learning how to plant crops & hunt.

Excellent exposition.

I did a year of uni-ersity once, years ago, and it struck me as anachronistic e-en then. Ironically, I did well in the stupid lecture things and regurgitating exams and badly on the practical (chemistry), but I already knew my particular kind of intelligence (or facility) was not doing much for me in Real Life. The kind of uni-ersity set-up is a left-o-er from the times when most people didn't ha-e books, let alone all our modern resources.
Myriad's point is very well taken. I will expound on that some more.
Myriad's point is very well taken. I will expound on that some more.