Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Value of College

From an article in the NY Times two weeks ago (June 26, 2011, SR3) ....

If you have a college degree, you make more money no matter what job you end up in, even if that job does not seem to require a college education. College educated dishwashers make $34K compared to high school grads at $19K. College educated hairdressers make $32K versus those with high school diplomas at $19K. (Interestingly, that $19K figure came up a lot as the likely income level for someone who had a high school diploma).

In some fields (e.g., child care worker, dental hygienist), you made a lot more if you had a college degree. In other fields, you made a bit more (e.g. firefighter, social worker). But in some fields, you made about the same amount of money whether you had a college degree or not: cook, secretary, clergy, casino worker and electrician.

I've been wondering what that is about, especially since I am an educator and am surrounded by folks who believe that a college degree is the "ticket to ride."

We have to ask ourselves whether the learning college affords makes a difference or whether the degree functions the way a letter of introduction worked in the 18th century affirming one's goodness or whether the kind of person who goes to college is the kind of person that employers prefer no matter what the qualifications needed. Of course, maybe it's some combination of factors, the answer I'm inclined toward.

I went to college and I learned a lot -- about life, about other people, about myself, about ideas, but I also missed a lot in the college bubble. So when I came out, I had more and different stuff to learn. And I clearly wasn't qualified for any job. ... except maybe any job that required attention to people, to detail and to communication and to take responsibility for what caught my attention.

I'm trying to remember if I was that way when I went in to college and, despite the years, I think the answer is yes. But college was a gift: time to mature, to let the me I was taught to be all along settle in and settle down. And there's no question that a degree from Bucknell University carried with it a certain cachet (but not as much as a degree from Harvard or Stanford would :-). Is this a system that is fair? that maximizes the potential of each and every young person? I'm not so sure.

So here's my (somewhat im-) modest proposal for today given the current high cost of college:
1) make high schools places where kids are coached to pay attention and take responsibility,
2) offer all students a place to mature for a few years -- mandatory community or military service perhaps? -- and ensure that those places/placements offer some kind of useful skills training as well as increasing social responsibility,
3) recommit to the Emersonian view that we Americans (and all citizens of the world) are morally equal, morally entitled to develop our own unique potential so that our contribution to this world is not lost.
4) revitalize democracy as "associated living" (a la Dewey) and encourage public forums (discussion groups, book clubs, etc.) that are broadly educative.

It would be interesting to see how liberal arts learning and vocational training would sort itself out if all four elements mentioned above were in place.

KIPP and Career Building

The Hess interview came on the heels of Feinberg’s announcement that his role in KIPP Houston would change. As KIPP continues to go “Turbo” (with a goal to enroll 10 percent of all the students in Houston), Feinberg will shift from operations to fundraising, advocacy and external relations. His new role smacks a bit of “empire-building” though Feinberg describes it differently.

Using FedEx and the USPS as an analogy, Feinberg argues that once KIPP claims a 10% market share, the schools in Houston will reach a tipping point and have to become more like KIPP. His theory is that folks in Houston will become more vocal and demand better schools as they get left out of the KIPP lottery. And that once the public demands better, the public schools will find a way to improve graduation rates, etc. (The implication of course, is that they could do better now; they just don’t because ….?)

Feinberg notes that KIPP schools in Houston turn down 80 % of those who want to come. He seems to think that this is indicative of near universal dissatisfaction with the public schools but his numbers don’t match up. He says that “winning the lottery to come to KIPP is literally winning the lottery.” The undermeaning seems to be one’s life chances are severely diminished if one doesn’t get KIPPed.

I don’t dispute Feinberg’s figures, but I do wonder if those figures say what he thinks they do. If things are so bad and KIPP is so good, why don’t the other 170,000+ parents in Houston want their kids in KIPP schools? I can think of two reasons: 1) parents are generally happy with their child’s education, or 2) KIPP has already tapped the activist get-the-edge-for-my-kid parent population and will stop before they encounter the reality that public school educators know only too well – that too many parents are too busy or too scared or too unprepared to take an active, constructive role in their child’s education.

Of course, Feinberg’s job shift reveals something very important about these publicly funded private schools. They rely not only on state charter subsidies but also governmental grants (“advocacy”) and private donations (“fundraising” and “external relations”) from folks who support the breakdown of the public school system. In an age of decreased governmental spending, Feinberg’s new job is to take a larger piece of the pie away from public schools.

[This is one not so secret secret of Teach for America’s success as well (besides skimming off the cream from the top of the academic jug). Funding from private sources and federal grants has enabled TFA to offer candidates intensive coaching, something that all teachers need but most graduates of traditional programs don’t get.]

So we are left to follow KIPP’s progress toward 10% enrollment and Feinberg’s progress toward his vision of educational success. I wish him well in finding the “right people” to lead and staff his schools. I agree with him that the key to strong schools is inspired leadership and inspirational teachers. But after 30 years in the business, I know how hard it is to find and identify those people. And I am not yet ready to cede the fate of the Houston public schools to his empire. I wish him well as he pursues his career path, but I see no reason to shift public money away from the other 90% of school students to make his dream for himself come true.