Friday, February 23, 2018

43 Years of College as the Presumed Choice – Its Meaning, Changes, and Value – I

What do people do after graduating from high school? 

Once upon a time there were many common answers to this question, but in recent decades one has increasingly and remarkably steadily become the norm for above average students and many below.  It has hardly been that way throughout the nation’s history; according to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 1869-1870 school year only 1.3% of 18 to 24-year-old Americans were enrolled in college.  That share edged up to 2.3% in 1899-1900, reached 4.7% by 1919-20, and even in the Depression-time 1933-34 was at 6.7%.  By 1945-46, the beginning of the G.I. Bill, it reached 10.0%, achieving 17.7% only ten years later and 27.7% in fall 1963, on the eve of U.S. Vietnam War involvement.  With the end of conscription twelve years later, 40.3% of Americans attended, not exceeding that rate until 1981 but reaching 53.7% by the fall of 1991.  Sources conflict after those dates, but per the Bureau of Labor Statistics 70% of high school students went directly to college in 2005, though dropping to 65.9% by the fall of 2013.  Most other first-world countries have not reached these levels; in a 44-country list from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Australia, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom had a higher share of 2014 25 to 34-year-olds with at least two-year degrees than America’s 46%. 

Since the Civil War, this massive and inexorable-seeming social trend has built with a remarkable lack of opposers.  One classic exception was author Caroline Bird, whose 1975 The Case Against College argued that fewer people should attend.  The book includes sections on how universities and even two-year schools benefit from a “mystique,” the cost of college to parents and students, its real, statistical, and erroneously purported advantages, a look at the true sources of success, and a 44-page chapter on alternative courses of action.  The work got attention, but as above did not stop the enrollment rise.

Now, 43 years later, we have picked up another dissident, this time professor Bryan Caplan, author of last month’s The Case Against Education.  In some ways, the roles and situation of college have transformed; in some ways they have not.  Here are nine changes, from Caplan and elsewhere, since Bird’s book.

First, the cost of college has massively increased even in relation to inflation.  The prices quoted by Bird, including $22,256 for all expenses for four years at Princeton, $2,400 per year including books and support for resident state-school students, and a medical school graduate expecting to owe “close to $15,000” now seem quaint.  According to former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, college tuition rose 260% from 1980 to 2014, compared with 120% for the Consumer Price Index.  Anecdotally, and by adding a few years to each end, we can get much higher jumps.  Tuition at Lawrence University, which I attended for the 1975-76 school year, has more than decupled from $4,400 to 2016-2017’s $44,544.  That at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, for state residents, soared 14-fold from 1977’s $680 for two full-credit semesters to $9,534 per year.  As a student I covered that with 320 hours of minimum-wage work, at $2.30 per hour less payroll tax deductions – today, at Wisconsin’s $7.25, it would take 1,424.    

Second, vocationalism, which was starting to vie with pure learning for main college directions in 1975, largely won that battle in the early 1980s, with school-wide emphasis changes and accounting becoming the most popular undergraduate major.

Third, the percentage of graduates has also increased substantially.   In 1975, 17.6% of American males, and 10.6% of females had four-year degrees; by 2016 those numbers were up to 33.2% and 33.7%, or a combined share 137% higher.

Fourth, the average statistical advantage for graduates has also gone up, with the expected “earnings premium,” cited by Caplan as rising from 50% more over a lifetime than those only finishing high school in the late 1970s to 73% last year.

Fifth, there are more college dropouts than ever, and they are not counted in the statistical gain above.  They accrue sometimes considerable debt, impede themselves from earning more during their enrollment times, cost their parents money as well, and, per Caplan, may after failing “be too embittered to go back and learn a trade.” 

Sixth, employers’ main response to degrees becoming more common has been to raise their educational requirements.  In the 1950s, people wanting careers in business rarely went to college.  Later, I saw that personally in AT&T management – when arriving in 1988, my bachelor’s degree was a solid credential, with many peers and even my first on-the-job boss without one, but in only nine years so many such managers had retired, been downsized, or were otherwise replaced by those two steps more educated, that I felt naked without a master’s degree.  The tasks themselves did not change nearly that much, with intelligence and technical aptitude still most required.

Seventh, academic work and studying hours in college have dropped.  Per Caplan, average 1967 students took 40 hours per week for class and study time – in 2017, that was 27. 

Eighth, and strangely given the last difference, above-average universities have become significantly more selective.  Even correcting for high school grade inflation, many successful 1970s and 1980s professionals could not now get into the colleges they attended with the credentials they had.  To name only one example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison then accepted almost all applicants with gradepoint averages in the top half of their classes – now the average is 3.85, and over half of those seeking to attend are rejected.  

Ninth, the general incompetence of graduates, in conjunction with their learning only narrow pieces of subjects, has worsened.  For me, the most depressing parts of learning about Caplan’s work were his examples of what people who successfully completed college, the most recent of whom have overcome these high admission requirements, paid modern-day tuition, and avoided falling to the no-degree wayside, often or even generally cannot do.  Per Caplan, 20% had only “basic” or even “below basic” literacy, and many could not “make sense of a table explaining how an employee’s annual health-insurance costs varied with income and family size, or summarize the work-experience requirements in a job ad, or even use a newspaper schedule to find when a television program ended.”  He also discovered Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s finding that “students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.”  Caplan glumly noted that while “those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world,” it “scarcely occurs.”  While 1970s universities with their arena-sized classrooms and predominant “multiple-guess” exams had, though to a lesser extent, these problems as well, few good academic departments would have let people graduate without having more flexible capability within their fields. 

Next week, we look at what has stayed the same since Bird’s work, and what is now happening, overall, with American higher education. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Bogus Employment Situations, How People Actually Find Work, and What Hiring Managers Really Want – Or Not

As long as there are people looking for employment, in other words as long as there is employment, there will be advice on how to get it.  Here we have three pieces from two authors, one maybe the best employment-obtaining columnist in the nation, and one with a standpoint of value without much previous stature in the field, anthropology.  What are they saying, and how much merit does it have?

First is another incisive warning from Liz Ryan of Forbes, her August 8th “Ten Signs You’re Interviewing For A Fake Job Opportunity.”  She recapped a letter received from a blogger cold-recruited for “Director of New Markets” and brought in for four interviews, during which “every conversation was stimulating,” then invited to a fifth, before which he overheard himself being described as a “tremendous resource… helping us figure out how to market our new products.”  He left the meeting early, then, when his main interviewer asked him to meet with a customer, requested that the man “get serious about this job offer,” after which he was never contacted again.

With online sources giving information about people’s knowledge and experience, which is often more than seekers of lower and middle management positions usually had in decades past, such abuse is a real problem.  Her ten tipoffs included a lack of apparent vetting and new interviewers every time who record your answers (“If they were going to hire you, why would they need to write down what you say?”), contrasted with vague and ever-changing information on their recruiting process, inability to articulate business “pain” with which the organization needs help, and a situation where “the job title, reporting relationship and responsibilities change every time you talk to them.”  As Ryan has written before, when all the company seems to care about is obtaining what you know, it’s time to talk instead about a consulting fee.

The second piece was Richard Eisenberg’s November 9th Next Avenue “Why Job Hunters Don’t Find Work,” an interview with anthropology professor Ilana Gershon.  She reached five ostensibly preconception-free conclusions, that personal brands don’t help people get jobs, that “people you don’t know very well” aren’t worth much either, that “employers rarely know” how effective potential hires would be, that true workplace ties are the best, and that age discrimination is often implemented by employers dropping applicants without communication.  I think better of personal branding than Gershon, as it is a way of becoming known before jobs become open, and don’t think all people have enough direct work contacts to ignore the secondary ones, but otherwise I can’t disagree with any of these.     

The third article, published January 9th and also from Liz Ryan in Forbes, gave me more to quarrel with than anything I can remember from her.  Perhaps that started with the overstated title, “Ten Things Every Hiring Manager Is Looking For.”  Clearly she was right about candidates’ needing to tell stories showing, instead of just stating, that they are “hard-working, smart and reliable,” even if such tales may not be believed, but those filling jobs don’t always particularly want “someone who can think on their feet,” “who’s dependable and keeps their commitments,” or “who has a sense of humor,” especially if they are not like that themselves, and it is surprisingly na├»ve to say that “they want to hire someone who has great ideas and is happy to share them,” or “is willing to learn, and to teach what they know.”  Having been told I wasn’t “a good fit” for a position that fit me like an Italian driving glove, after a day’s worth of interviews during which I emphasized my quality with actual work experiences, may have biased me, but I think most long-time corporate managers have seen the same. 

So what does work for getting a good job?  I will stay with my perceptions, originated by me during a half-year of unemployment and seconded by my career counselor, that hiring managers want two things:  someone with specific experience at the position in question, and someone they like personally.  You will know when you have the former, and the latter is far too individual to say, beyond ordinary manners and courtesy, what will win you over to “every” interviewer, or even to most of them.  As with tournament bridge, all you can do is play your game, and if you lose, you lose.  As with standup comedy, since you always risk it you should ensure that if you bomb it is with your own material.  As I learned in comedy improv, if you “suck” and “die” you should smile and bow.  Accordingly, prepare, be on time, and be yourself.  That is the right approach.      

Friday, February 9, 2018

It’s Open: Resorts World Catskills Is Already Transforming Sullivan County and Beyond

Yesterday, the long-anticipated Monticello, New York casino, approved by voters over four years ago, opened its doors.  With fewer than one third of its anticipated 332 hotel rooms available, many restaurants still in construction, and Resorts World Catskills’ centerpiece golf course not to be ready until next year, it’s a soft opening, but weeks ahead of schedule that’s nothing to be ashamed of.

The gaming facility will have two special emphases.  First it is trying to cater, more than other regional casinos, to high rollers, with private gambling areas and high-end accommodations.  Second, with Mandarin-speaking staff and large layouts for the dice game sic bo, similar to ones I saw crowded with players in Macau, it is seeking eastern Asian customers.  It has already been credited with creating anywhere from 1,400 to 2,200 jobs.  Additionally, in a departure from the casino model created by Bugsy Siegel over 70 years ago and still in use worldwide, it has large windows, perhaps emphasizing its integration with instead of separation from its surrounding area. 

How has employment worked out so far?  In June 2015, before significant construction had started, Sullivan had 32,441 people employed and 5.3% unemployment, higher than neighboring Orange and Ulster counties’ 4.8%.  A year later, Sullivan had shrunk the gap from 0.5% to 0.2%, and was up to 33,045 working and down to 4.2% unemployment.  By June 2017, possibly the building peak, Sullivan County, though now at 4.4% joblessness, was tied with Ulster and better than Orange, with 33,653 employed.  Given that these numbers reflect county residents instead of in-county employment, these statistics do not clearly show Sullivan’s work-opportunity changes, but a net gain of over 1,200 positions for a place of this size is noteworthy – and residents of nearby counties have also been helped. 

As for Resorts World Catskills’ future, we can only speculate.  Some comments coming out now look oversold, particularly the idea that the facility will, by itself, return the Catskills to its postwar tourism glory.  Its emphasis on large bettors may not work out.  If it starts with results as disappointing as those from other new state casinos, we hope the owners have the patience and can implement the business changes to achieve a turnaround.  The idea of catering to Asian players could be either visionary or quixotic, yet we should expect that chief Empire Resorts owner K.T. Lim, a billionaire Malaysian of Chinese descent, can bring them in and get them what they want.    

All the advantages, though, I cited in an August 2013 blog post still apply.  The increased tax revenues will help the state as well as the community, with many New Yorkers certain to choose it over competitors in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.  Tourism to the area will rise, with legal, fair, modern gambling, and other entertainment, becoming part of what the Catskills offer.  Those of us living in the area will have, along with the gaming opportunities, additional access to concerts, restaurants, nightclubs, golf, and waterparking.  The casino includes a poker room, giving the many people who play that game, in a category apart from others since it is not against the house, its only public Sullivan County venue.  Those unable to tolerate gambling have many casino-arranged resources, including the ability to bar themselves, available.  The resort is confined to its land and will not threaten widespread environmental destruction as did the previous large opportunity, fracking.   Accordingly, all we can do is cheer for it, because, at this point, if the casino wins we will as well.     

Friday, February 2, 2018

AJSN Up Almost 900,000 To 17.15 Million as Unemployment Seasonally Jumps on Otherwise Slightly Warm Fed Jobs Report

The news is in from two classic American places this morning.  The first was discouraging but expected.  Washington, though, did better than Gobbler’s Knob.

We were led to anticipate a poor jobs report, with indifferent employment gains at best, after how much, a year ago, January dropped off from December.  Once again, though, this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Summary was more moderate than expected.  While unadjusted joblessness did worsen considerably, from 3.9% to 4.5%, the adjusted version held at 4.1%.  We added 200,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, half again what we needed to cover population growth.  The count of long-term unemployed, or those officially jobless for 27 weeks or longer, shed 100,000 to reach a new prerecession low of 1.4 million.  Average private nonfarm wages added 9 cents to a 2-cent December adjustment and is now at $26.74, for the past year up 2.9% and more than inflation.  The two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, held for the second straight month at 62.7% and 60.1% respectively.  

Bringing up the rear in January’s federal statistics were adjusted unemployment, which rose 100,000 to 6.7 million, and the count of Americans working part-time for economic reasons or holding on to part-time jobs while looking for full-time ones, up the same amount for the second straight month to 5.0 million. 
The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, the measure of latent demand which shows in one figure how many additional positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were available, gained 867,000, almost completely on unadjusted unemployment’s bump, as follows:

Comparing the AJSN with last January’s, though, gives a more encouraging story.  It is now almost 1.2 million lower, with more than one quarter of that difference coming from people marginally attached to the labor force, specifically those discouraged or not searching for work in the previous year.  There are also now about 1.1 million fewer Americans in the armed services, in institutions, or off the grid.  On the other hand, to what should be nobody’s surprise, the count of those claiming no interest whatever in working continued its steady climb with 1.9 million more, in large but hardly entire part from the increasingly aging population.

So how good a month was this January?  Quite respectable, if unspectacular.  We avoided as large a seasonal drop as we had last year, and the strong gain in jobs was not offset much by anything else.  Accordingly, I saw the turtle shake his legs and take a step forward.