2013 December 29 Sunday
Walmarts Of Higher Education: Good Or Bad?

Regular readers won't be surprised by my answer: good. College professors are worried: 'We Are Creating Walmarts of Higher Education'

Some campuses of the University of North Carolina system are mulling getting rid of history, political science, and various others of more than 20 “low productive” programs.

Speaking as someone who likes history and reads a lot of history books: the colleges are happy to get students to pile on a lot of debt and then graduate with poor employment prospects. A college administrator with good job security and a 6 figure salary can complain about the pressures to improve the economic impact of education. But people really do need to earn a living and we live in an era where median income has been declining for years. This has happened in in spite of rising spending on higher education that has, per student, outpaced inflation for decades.

If you want to raise the per capita GDP of your state then:

  • Strongly encourage and incentivize high school kids to take college courses while in high school. For example, let them watch college course online and then take tests proctored by high school teachers to earn college credit.
  • Drop college majors from the state colleges that have low earnings potential or raise their tuition costs. That way the people who want to study them will leave the state.
  • Lower tuition charged to students from out-of-state who want to come and study engineering, math, or physics. Get the future big earners to move to your state. They'll pay more in taxes and raise living standards.
  • State colleges should have staffed offices for connecting kids up with summer internships that are in state. Get the ROI of those who study useful subjects in your state.
  • Let engineering college profs take a year off at reduced pay to help start a company.
  • Give Y Combinator free office space in an engineering college town in your state to start a satellite office.
  • Encourage more jobs to be automated out of existence (e.g. don't be like New Jersey and insist on gas station attendants to pump gasoline).
  • Raise minimum wage to a level that drives out people who lack the skills to get, say, a $20 per hour job.

Got any other ideas for policy levers that a state government could pull to raise the quality of its workforce and citizenry?

This one is a little odd.

The University of Southern Maine may drop physics.

Since the University of Southern Maine accepts 78% of the students who apply most of its student body probably aren't smart enough to do much with physics. 75% scored below 560 in SAT Math. But they have almost 10k students. How many study physics?

These governors are wise.

And governors in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin have questioned whether taxpayers should continue subsidizing public universities for teaching the humanities.

Wisconsin is a cold place, the sort of place people leave. It especially needs to tilt its educational playing field in favor of people who will earn big bucks.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2013 December 29 07:07 PM 

bob sykes said at December 30, 2013 5:35 AM:

I taught at an elite private college for two years and a major research university for 35 years. Overall nationally, only about one-fourth to one-third of the students enrolled can benefit from a college education. If you regard an IQ of 115 as a cutoff point (for an elite school), then only one-sixth of whites, one-half of Jews and East Asians, a few percent of Mexicans and one or two percent of blacks can benefit. If you want to promote STEM degrees, you have to realize that only about 5% of the students enrolled in undergraduate colleges have the interest, work ethic and intelligence to succeed in STEM programs.

As to STEM and engineering in particular, we already have a substantial overproduction of degreed people at all levels. At the BS level, the surplus ranges up to nearly 50% in a few disciplines like civil engineering (my specialty). Those not going on to practice in their discipline often go into a related field like technical sales. The achievement of an engineering degree also requires well above average intelligence and hard work, so it is a screening device for many areas. And some BS engineers go into other professions like law (itself overenrolled) or medicine (likely to be a poor choice under Obamacare).

At the Ph. D. level, almost three-quarters of the national enrollment in engineering and the sciences are foreigners. Under present law, they can stay 18 months after graduation for practical experience and then must go home, but still there is surplus production as evidenced by the large numbers of post-docs. Actually, a few get to stay. The immigration bill in the Senate would almost all of these people HB-1 visas upon graduation. In that case, almost all would stay, and the salaries in STEM would be crushed. This is exactly what companies like Apple and Microsoft are trying to achieve.

The point is that STEM is not a panacea either for the US as a whole or for individual states. The STEM labor markets are already saturated. This fact is privately admitted by professional organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers, the leaders of which regard this as a positive good that keeps down compensation costs for civil engineering companies.

Bill said at December 30, 2013 8:51 AM:

First, thanks for pointing out an interesting and timely article. Lots of interesting problems to tackle.

I think that this is the best question to ask:

Why do we need more college graduates?

I don't think that more is better; a person can get a great liberal arts education and be well prepared for citizenship after a properly executed K-12 education. In 1940, only about 3 percent of the total US population had a college degree.

Everyone wants to have an easy to remember metric or principle that gets them through without thinking. "College grads make more money - everyone should be a college grad!" It's easy. Except that it isn't, especially now.

Rich people's kids can make their own choices, as always, regarding college. People who need to borrow for college should look at the marketplace, to get value for their money. As a society, we should selectively support what we need: doctors, nurses, teachers, particular kinds of engineers, etc.

The actual Walmart exists because everybody needs groceries. We don't need the "Walmart of colleges" because every person in America does not need to go to college.

Randall Parker said at December 30, 2013 8:21 PM:

bob sykes,

I know large numbers of foreigners who managed to stay after earning engineering degrees. My sense of it is that most manage to stay.

Civil engineering: not an area of high demand mostly because it is not an area that can increase productivity much. Compare that to people who do robotics, data mining, and other occupations which can increase productivity dramatically. The demand is high for people who have stats, machine learning, data mining, natural language processing, and other skills for dealing with large data sets. Lots more can be done with huge amounts of data. That's where the future is.

Promoting STEM degrees: I promote them to the people who are smart enough to learn the stuff. Only I do not promote the "S" part of stem. Science is poorly paid relative to engineering and I'd rather see smart people to into engineering. The top paying jobs are in engineering. But civil engineering is not in the top 10 degrees to get.


What I advocate for: get all the people who are smart enough to study the high value subjects to stop studying low value subjects. Better to study what will do mos to raise productivity and pay a lot of money.

Wolf-Dog said at December 31, 2013 7:08 PM:

But "S" is the heart of "T", and "M" is the heart of "S" at the most critical level. Top engineering schools have noticed that some of their most versatile and creative PhD candidates are the ones who had undergraduate degrees in physics instead of traditional engineering. Thus, for the future of "T", the society must nurture "S" even though the latter group initially gets lower salaries. And money is not everything: the smartest people value their time more than money, as long as they have a decent salary that is comfortable.

One problem in the United States is that for some reason, the mathematics PhDs are so "spiritual" that they disdain applied mathematics and many of them would stay unemployed instead of becoming applied mathematicians. This is not true in Europe, where applied mathematics is very prestigious. For example, the most competitive school in France is Ecole Polytechnique, which is an Engineering school, and the entrance exam requires 2 years of preparation beyond high school, and the curriculum of this preparatory program is essentially applied mathematics. Even French politicians often go to Ecole Polytechnique to earn the equivalent of a Master's degree in engineering or applied mathematics before applying to the prestigious "Ecole Nationale d'Administration" where most of the French politicians are trained. In the French culture (and in many European countries), people who have degrees in mathematics are revered, but applied mathematics is not despised, it is a status symbol.

But what do these mathematically trained French engineers do after they graduate from the top engineering schools ("Les Grandes Ecoles") besides becoming politicians? For one thing, France is the only country in the world that gets nearly 80 % of its power from nuclear energy. And currently France is developing 5th generation reactors designed to burn all the uranium (100 times more efficient) without leaving any long term waste. (Let's hope that this will work.) This is DESPITE the fact that the average French workers are ranked as the laziest and least productive in the world. So science rules in Europe, even though the American scientists and engineers are better, because the European culture reveres scientific education.

Randall Parker said at December 31, 2013 8:59 PM:


I think physics, because it is so mathematical, is great preparation for, say, becoming a machine learning model builder. But what about biology and chemistry? We have far too many people majoring in both and way too many going to grad school in both.

France: the government gets 55% of GDP. Those engineer politicians are messing up the country badly and driving out talent.

French workers are quite productive per hour worked. They just do not work as many hours. Also, the lower IQ collect welfare rather than working and therefore they do not drive down average productivity.

Wolf-Dog said at December 31, 2013 10:53 PM:

Randall Parker, The French engineer politicians are forced to raise taxes because their lower classes are so incompetent that they will starve without subsidies, whereas the French elite is so qualified that all the money accumulates in their bank accounts especially when the welfare recipients are forced to buy from their upper class. The only reason the Americans can get away with lower taxes is because the US currency is backed by the geopolitical strategic position of the United States, and the US dollar therefore remains strong despite huge government deficit combined with huge foreign trade deficit, meaning that cheap imported goods from China that are paid with debt, are given to the poor American welfare recipients but the resulting foreign trade deficit does not reduce the value of the dollar significantly due to the unique status of the US.

Thus,although the French government's subsidy for the poor inevitably results in the escape of the French talent, I am convinced that the French scientists and engineers are still so loyal to their culture that money cannot move them very often. I know from anecdotal evidence that very few French scientists move to the US despite higher salaries and bigger opportunities for research, they like to be in France. More Swiss scientists move to the US than French scientists. And the wealthy French people who renounce their citizenship to avoid higher taxes are mostly the high-profile actors like Gerard Depardieu or business people whose talent is in management, but the latter class of people are not the engineers who invent new instruments.

But the main point is that the French politicians who are scientifically literate, are doing a good job of nurturing a very good educational system, where the high school curriculum is very strong in sciences and mathematics.

Big Bill said at January 1, 2014 11:11 AM:

Wisconsin is famous for "The Wisconsin Idea", first formulated in 1912 by Charles McCarthy.

The thesis was that the University, its professors and students, have a duty to the state and its citizens to develop the state and its people in achieving practical, concrete things. It was an outgrowth of the Progressive Era and was very state-focused.

The University Extension program grew out of that understanding and commitment.

At this point, the University of Wisconsin is only marginally committed to the people and State of Wisconsin, inviting thousands of students from out of state (and out of the country) to study and then leave, taking their knowledge with them. The people of Wisconsin are told to be proud of the UW, even as the UW becomes more and more disconnected from the very people it should be serving. The UW has gone full tranzi. Like America itself, the UW is becoming a giant bus station for people from elsewhere who are just passing through.

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