Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Pedagogy, Understanding the Market

Podcast: James Rovira and the Anazoa Educational Project on Punkonomics

I’ve blogged quite a bit about a number of higher education topics, but what’s my own vision for higher education? I spent some time with Dr. Beni Balak, Professor of Economics at Rollins College, on the phone for his Punkonomics podcast to discuss the Anazoa Educational Project and my vision for higher education. Follow the link to listen to the podcast.

Educational Consulting, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Podcast: Are College Students Being Prepared for the Workforce?

Have you enjoyed my blogging about workforce preparation and college education? If you like listening to podcasts, I was interviewed by Tim Muma about that topic on LJN Radio.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Understanding College Advising

If you’re a student, you probably have a number of people advising you: teachers, guidance counselors, college admissions people, your parents… the list could go on. I’d like to help students understand what advising — and educational consulting — can and can’t do for you.

All advisors should listen to the student’s own long and short term goals, and they should ask leading questions to help the student clarify them. They should recommend a variety of paths to the student to reach those goals, but be honest, informed, and realistic about these different paths. Advisors should also provide materials to the student to help the student make better informed decisions, and they should engage in advising with the student’s best interests in mind.

But a good advisor won’t feel obligated to validate all of the student’s goals or ideas. If a student is really committed to humanities Ph.D. study or law school, for example, the advisor should still inform the student of the realities of these programs of study, not tell the student what he or she wants to hear. Being honest about the realities of a path may be discouraging to the student, but the student still needs that information to make an informed decision.

A good advisor will also be honest about the student’s demonstrated abilities so far in their educational careers. If a student’s grades are weak in math, science, or English, a good advisor will be honest with the student about the barriers those grades might present. However, a good advisor will also know that a student’s grades do not define the student as a person or necessarily summarize their potential. In other words, good advisors know that not all barriers are insurmountable.

A good advisor won’t do anything other than advising: good advisors give students facts about the field, the market, and educational options, but they don’t try to make students’ decisions for them. They also don’t give students advice intended to benefit the student’s educational institution above the student. Every B.A. program would love to say 90% of their graduates were accepted for Ph.D. study, but that doesn’t mean that 90% of their graduates should be pursuing Ph.D. study. Good advising, in other words, is never anything other than a supplement to the student’s own decision-making process. It is not supposed to or be able to take the place of the student’s own decision making.

If you’re a student, you should know that your decisions are ultimately your own. You make them and then you live with the consequences. Because these are ultimately your decisions, you should be aggressive in pursuing information that will help you make the most informed decisions possible. Get everything that you can from your advisor and then seek out other information as well. Listen to your advisors, even if you disagree with them, rather than demand to be told certain things. And, listen to a number of advisors. Don’t get your information only from one source.

You should also think generally about what you most want. Do you mainly want to make a living? Or do you mainly want to perform fulfilling work? Are you willing to make a bit less money to be more fulfilled in the kind of work that you do?

There are no right answers to these questions. Some people pursue work in high-paying fields and then burn out and make expensive mid-career shifts to more fulfilling fields. Some people pursue fulfillment but have a hard time making a decent living. Ideally, of course, we would all work in fulfilling jobs that pay well, whether we work as employees, own our own businesses, or do creative, freelance work.

We all also need to understand that the ability to do work that is both fulfilling and very profitable is dependent upon many arbitrary factors. At the least, it is dependent upon the random intersections of what this society chooses to reward financially, your own abilities, and your own interests. Just don’t mistake profitability for inherent value: scientific or engineering work generates patents and/or high end products (like bridges, tanks, and computers), so produces a lot of money, and there aren’t enough people around with math skills at that high a level, so the employee pool is small.

Someone who produces something that can be packaged and sold at high volume can also make a lot of money: one hit single can pay a lot. But while small employee pools, high end products, and mass produced products drive up the profitability of a line of work, an engineer or singer is not inherently more valuable, socially, than a middle school math or music teacher. You can’t have engineers and singers without math and music teachers. If we lost every pro basketball player in the world, the world wouldn’t be that bad off–maybe it’d even be better off in some ways. But if we lost all of our music and math teachers, that would be a long term disaster for the human race.

What might that ideal spot of wage earning and job fulfillment look like for you? No advisor can answer that question. No one can tell you what you want. Advising can only point you in a direction that leads you to your goals, so no advising will be better than your own knowledge of your own goals. Bright Futures Educational Consulting is here to help you define your goals first, and once you’ve done that, it will show you the best paths to help you meet them. Contact us for more information.

College Writing, Educational Consulting, Learning, Majors and Areas of Study, Understanding the Market

Employers Want Writing Skills

In 2011 the Wall Street Journal published an article asking, “Why Can’t MBA Students Write?” which was later revised to “Students Struggle for Words.” The truth is that employers have been complaining about MBA writing skills for well over ten years now, and not just MBAs but college graduates in general. A survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers stated that 73.4% of employers want graduates with strong written communication skills, while a survey by the American Association of University Professors found that 93% of employers think a “demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is important.”

The numbers are high because too many college grads leave college with poor writing skills. In some cases the problem is simply etiquette: graduates haven’t learned formal business communication. Others think that writing skills are difficult to teach, as if good writing was more an innate talent than a learned activity. I think these impressions come from a panacea view of writing instruction: students take a writing class, and then they learn how to write, so if those one or two writing classes are good enough, they don’t need any more.

Writing instruction doesn’t usually work that way, however. Developing writing ability is a matter of cognitive development, not just a matter of taking in information, so it takes time to develop. If a college program wants to develop students’ writing skills, students need to be made to read and write and to receive writing instruction in most of their classes, not just their English classes. The problem is that business and many other professional programs don’t invest in practices that develop writing skills, such as placing high reading and writing requirements on their students and then holding their writing to high standards.

Solution? If you’re in college, regardless of your major, take additional, even unrequired writing classes. Take all the discipline-specific writing classes that you can. And take some writing classes outside of your discipline, maybe even creative writing classes. In addition to those strategies, work on your own to develop your skills and get outside help. For example, I have a first year writing textbook titled Writing for College and Beyond, one that ties the basic elements of college writing to typical tasks in business writing. I wrote this textbook out of eighteen years’ experience teaching college writing in addition to my own experience with business and professional writing. Additionally, I’m the author of four other books and a number of book chapters and reviews as well as short stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction. I would love to help you with your college application essays, requests for letters of recommendation, and with your editing needs. Just contact me for more information.

Avoiding Student Loan Debt, Cost of Degree, Educational Consulting, Majors and Areas of Study, Return on Investment, Understanding the Market

Should You Study What You Love?

Most of my posts about higher education are directed toward people who are planning to go to college. What about those on the fence? Should you go to college at all?

The quick answer is, if you can do it debt free, do it. If you can do it low cost and low debt, do it. Do it and pursue your love. And I would say this on all levels, from two year degrees to Ph.D.s. If what you love isn’t practical or doesn’t provide a clear job path for you, or if it’s creative and if, in this field, being successful is like a small lottery win — still do what you love. If you can go to college debt free, or with very minimal debt, you have more to lose by not pursuing your love than by chasing it.

Now of course you need to worry about employability. One problem with higher ed. right now is perhaps best illustrated by the embedded table.

GRE Scores by Major
From the report “Educating School Leaders” by Arthur Levine, 2005. Click the image to go to the report.

This table lists the top scores on the GRE (Graduate Records Examination) by major. The GRE is typically taken by college students near graduation to qualify them for graduate study at different institutions. You can think of it like an SAT or ACT for graduate school. At the time this data was collected, it measured student competency in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative (math), and Analytical (logic). The table to the left is arranged in the order of who gets the highest analytical scores. Can you guess? No, not science or philosophy majors. English majors score the highest on both the analytical and the verbal sections of the GRE, followed by, in order, Religion, Physics, and American History.

Now of the top four highest scoring majors, only one of them seems to hold the promise of any kind of certain employment. So the situation seems to be that the least seemingly practical majors offer the highest potential for cognitive and creative self development, but somewhat lower potential for income and employment. Which is unfortunate, because of all of the people who might walk into any office to be interviewed for a job, the most intellectually capable will usually be liberal arts majors. They can think the clearest and the fastest and can learn the quickest.

The reasons for this are simple: liberal arts majors, and especially English and history majors, read the most and write the most. So do religion majors (religion is just the study of a different set of literatures). At most of my previous institutions, typical English majors will read perhaps 20,000 pages or more and write about 2,000 pages or more over the course of their study. Their writing has to be more than just summary writing too — they need to present original arguments about their topics, at least original to them within the context of limited research time. That’s why English majors were, and still are, favored by law schools. That kind of research and argument writing is great preparation for legal work.

But the problem is, employers don’t know this about liberal arts graduates, and they don’t know what to do with them. What we have is a massive disconnect, then: employers don’t know how college educations work and what they produce, and neither do they seem to know how to match employees with jobs if their education isn’t specifically vocational. Colleges and universities, on the other hand, don’t know how to sell their majors to employers. So it seems that the safe thing to do is to pursue a major that clearly matches a job, and then to get the job that your degree has prepared you for.

But no, that’s not always the safe thing to do. A highly vocational education prepares you for a very limited range of jobs, and if you hate that one job you’re educated to do, you’ll find yourself either working a job that you hate, or going and doing something else and feeling that your college education was a massive waste of time and money. And if the industry changes, or rather when the industry changes, every time the industry changes (and it will), you will have to educate yourself again. Education never is a waste of time or money, of course: it always develops you. That is an investment that never goes away. Even if you don’t use your specific skill sets, you have developed cognitively in ways you may not even know. But you still don’t want to be found in this situation.

But that brings me back to my first point: if you go to college, pursue the things that you love. If you devote your time studying what you love, you will never regret that time spent, and it will develop you in ways you never before considered possible. But as you major in what you love, also minor in something that employers recognize: marketing, PR, management, finance, coding (.html, .xml, .php, flash, java). . . there’s a wide range. I would advise all English majors to learn a programming language and web technologies. I would extend that advice to all liberal arts majors.

I have not yet made it to the central question, though: should you go to college at all? I have known many capable, intelligent, and yes educated people who have never gone to college and have done well for themselves. These people are, however, in every sense of the word, exceptional. You also probably don’t need to go to college to play pro football, basketball, baseball, or if you’re very good at making money and selling, or if you have a marketable skill and a good head for business, or if you win the lottery, but most people can’t count on any of these things.

The numbers are out there. As poorly as the job market is performing for college grads, it always performs much worse for those without a college education. Except in very rare cases, employers won’t consider your application unless you have at least a bachelor’s degree, and if you get a job, you will only go so far without a degree. Even people with some college and no degree earn more money than those with no college at all.

So if you can go to college, go to college. It’s still the smartest choice. But as I’ve been saying, study what you love, get a vocationally oriented minor, and go to school as close to debt free as possible.

How can you go to school debt free? Attend a state school. They’re cheaper. Start at a community college and transfer in state — that’s even cheaper. I had a student once describe taking out student loans so he could party during Spring break: okay, don’t do that. I had friends in high school who worked Alaskan fishing boats over the summer, made a lot of money, and then used it to pay for college during the year. And most importantly, go before you get married, and especially before you have children.

Do you need to go to college to be educated? No, of course not. I didn’t start college until I was 23, and by that time I had done more reading on my own than I was required to do for my all of my undergraduate college classes combined. I read a lot. I only went to college because, I thought, if I’m going to do all of this reading and writing I may as well earn a degree with it. So I know what it’s like to be self educated, and I also know what it’s like to go through an educational system (I have a Ph.D. in English). The only thing you need to get educated is enough of an education to get you started, a willingness to work hard, and a library.

The advantages of a college education, however, are that your knowledge is structured, that you have some guidance and confidence in your knowledge, that you have credentials, and that you’re learning with other people, which makes the educational experience that much more intense, rewarding, and meaningful. And perhaps most importantly of all: you have a sense of what other people know. You know what knowledge to take for granted. That’s part of being socialized into the knowledge that you gain, and you learn not just a bunch of information, but how to arrange that information — you learn what’s more important and what is less important.

Ultimately, what will matter is what you can do. There are plenty of useless people out there with degrees, and the people I know working at the highest levels care about what you really know and what you can really do, not so much about your credentials. Credentials are just a way to weed out people less likely to perform — they are a way for the people holding the keys to the doors to hedge their bets. But credentials are no guarantee, and too many people waste their time in college, squeak by in their classes doing minimal work, and graduate almost as useless as when they went in, usually after taking some kind of vocationally-oriented major.

How do you avoid being one of these useless, credentialed people? Study what you love.

I’d like to add that there are many two year degrees offered through community colleges that are vocationally oriented and lead to good paying jobs. Again, your training will be very narrow, as will be your skill set, but some of these jobs pay better than most four year grads make right out of college. This may be an option if you don’t know what you love, or if you know that what you really love will never be something you can do for money. But you will find if you choose this path that you will peak early in your career unless you finish a B.A. and Master’s degree, so the upper end of your earning potential — at least as far as your degree will take you — will usually be limited compared to those with more education. This path is, however, a quick way to a good paying job if you choose the right A.S. degree.

Still not sure what to do? Contact us at home@brightfuturesedconsulting.com for a free one hour consultation.