“Helping the Poor in Education: The Power of a Simple Nudge” (New York Times, January 17, 2015) is a representative of a genre of literature that was common at the American Economic Association conference that I attended. Economists, who get paid to teach at colleges, experiment with ways to get more young people from poorer-than-average families to become customers of colleges. Nobody seems to question whether this might be biased and/or misleading advice.
As noted in a previous posting, the return on investment (of time and money) in many degree programs is zero or negative. That’s in a best-case scenario where the students actually graduate, which is not a typical outcome for a person who has been dragged into college.
When experimenters provide students with advice regarding college they don’t share comparisons regarding other careers. They don’t tell people who indicate an interest in majoring in art history, for example, that the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that museum curators have a lower median pay that plumbers or electricians. Nor do they disclose that a California state prison guard earns more than a typical Harvard graduate (WSJ). Nor do they explain that a firefighter can work two 24-hour shifts per week and earn more, especially considering the value of a defined benefit pension, than a typical college graduate imprisoned in a cubicle farm every weekday (see LA Weekly for how $200,000 per year is the average total comp for a Los Angeles Fire Department worker). Certainly they don’t explain that meeting a physician in a bar and having a one-night sexual encounter will pay better than college followed by work (state-dependent, but New York (see Liza Ghorbani), California, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maryland, Montana, and Wyoming are good starting points) and that earning a college degree may reduce the profitability of children in states that use an “income shares” model for calculating child support (since a judge can impute income to a non-working college graduate at a higher level than would be imputed to a non-working high school graduate). Nor do they provide any encouragement to young people to attend colleges that employ fewer professors per student. For example, you could argue that for a lot of young Americans, assuming that they had moral objections to earning 100 percent of household revenue from children produced out of wedlock, the economically optimum strategy would be to work weekdays 9-5 from age 18-22 while spending evenings earning a Bachelor’s degree at the online Western Governor’s University. WGU employs 2,000 faculty members to serve about 54,000 students, a 1:27 ratio. This compares to an average liberal arts college ratio of 1:11.6 (US News), Harvard’s 1:7 ratio, and a national average for all schools of about 1:15 (collegefactual.com). None of the studies that I have seen from academic economists have them experimenting with telling young people about a way to earn a college degree, without losing four years of income and four years of work experience, that would result in fewer jobs for academic economists.
The three areas that I know best are aviation, photography, and IT/software engineering. Absent getting an Ivy League degree it is hard for me to imagine how a young person wouldn’t be better off working in the field for four years while earning an online degree at night. A Harvard graduate with 40 hours and a Private certificate is not going to get hired by an airline and, due to Harvard often requiring students to take a gap year, this person is 23 years old. The 18-year-old who starts flight training will be an instructor by 19 and a regional airline pilot by age 22, right around the time the WGU degree is being mailed (e-mailed?) out. A WGU graduate who has been an apprentice for four years in a commercial photo studio is in a much better position to get work as a photographer than someone fresh out of a traditional offline university, both in terms of skills and connections. A WGU graduate, age 22, who has four years of work experience, with references from employers who say “this person showed up on time every day and kept the systems running” is a much lower risk hire than a fresh CS grad from a 2nd- or 3rd-tier college.