~ Archive for Education ~

Value of a Degree


There have been quite a few articles published this year suggesting that college really isn’t that valuable. Some of the more interesting ones have pointed out that the generic skills acquired by students are minimal.  Other authors suggest that the reason so many people go to college now vs. 50 years ago is because high schools are turning out such poor students that you have to spend an additional four years to get the basic skills the previous generation learned in 12 years of schooling.

Still other arguments suggest that the only value of a college degree is to be part of the club of other college graduates who are likely to be doing the hiring–a self perpetuated cycle that is more of a social club than an issue of actual education.

The thing that  is often overlooked about education in general and a four years spent at a university in particular is that everyone has a different college experience. A motivated individual with a library card can obtain a fabulous education at virtually no cost, while a lazy person pursuing at degree costing $100,000 from a prestigious institution may come out just as dumb as they went in. Perhaps the bar for obtaining a college degree is too low, but at some point the educational experience is more about giving students an opportunity than it is about churning out identically educated clones from an educational factory.

Of course this raises the question whether or not college is a cost effective way of providing that opportunity.  For smart hard working kids it probably is.  They are likely to be on some type of scholarship and know how to position themselves to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way. However for average students who aren’t particularly interested in working hard it often isn’t a good investment.

Books Read After Graduation


As an interesting statistic floating around on the Internet saying that 42% of college graduates never read another book. I tried to locate the source for this statistic but have been unable to find the original study. I have also been unable to find any other study with similar statistics.

I did find some research that suggests that only one third of college graduates possess the necessary reading skills to understand a complex book. Pretty much anything that requires reading skills beyond an intermediate level are out of the grasp of the two thirds majority.

Back to how many books are read by college graduates, saying that 42% never read another book seems wrong intuitively. However, any study that simply looked at all college graduates would provide very little information. It would include people who graduated in 1950 as well as people who graduated last year. Including that type of time span would make it very difficult to form any real conclusions about a decline in the rate of reading. A more meaningful statistic would be to look at how many books are read by people who have graduated from college in the last five years. This would probably show many fewer books being read.

42% still seems pretty high. However, if include associates degrees and stipulate that the books must be read from beginning to end and limit the books that count two nonfiction books, it’s possible that you might arrive somewhere in the range of 42%.

At the local community college I’m fascinated with the number of things we do to try to help people compensate for learning disabilities. I’m all for giving people an equal shot at getting their degree, but if you need someone else to read the test questions to you so you can answer them verbally I question whether you should even be getting a degree. Maybe if you are blind. However if you simply have trouble reading and understanding what is written, coming up with special services in order to let you graduate is only going to diminish the value of the degree for everyone else. If employers can’t count on Associates degree to mean that a student can at least read and follow written instructions what is the real value of the degree. It shows that they paid their tuition and generally showed up for class. While these are obviously good attributes to having an employee, I suspect that most hiring managers expect a college degree to indicate more than a certificate of attendance.


“Stellar” writing


I don’t think I’ve ever had anything I’ve written called “stellar” before.  Well there is a first for everything.  Someone was discussing the pros and cons of different articles links and pointed to my article about getting my masters degree as an example of a good long article.

While I appreciate the encouragement, I don’t feel like I’m that great at writing.  However, blogging on a regular basis has made it much easier to write.  When I was working the proposal for my master’s degree thesis, my advisor mentioned that I write very well.  I don’t think he was saying that my prose was simply incredible to read.  He was just pointing out that it seemed to take me a lot less effort to get ideas out of my head and onto the page. When I got into actually writing the thesis, it didn’t seem quite as hard as everyone else had described.  Thats not to say it didn’t require hard work–it just wasn’t as bad as I had been expecting.

Many people don’t practice writing because it is hard, but the only way to get better at writing is to just buckle down and do it on a regular basis.  Blogs are a beautiful way to do this because they are informal enough to have a very low barrier to entry while still being accessible enough that you can actually get a small audience and have real readers for your output.

Value of an MBA


This week I read some interesting research on the questionable value of an MBA degree. The article starts with a few assumptions that should logically be true if an MBA degree is valuable.  Here are a few of the assumptions:

  1. Attaining an MBA should correlate with other measures of career success such as having a higher salary.
  2. The better you understand the content of an MBA degree, the better your success in business.  In other words, higher grades in an MBA program should correlate with more career success.

The research presented seems to suggest that neither of those statements are true.  Of course this raises some obvious questions.  If mastering the material in business school isn’t a good way to be more successful in business, how useful is business school in the first place?  Given the non-trivial actual and opportunity cost involved, are MBA programs a good investment for a student?

I’m not ready to completely discount the value of a business degree.  However, research like this suggests the following:

  • Students shouldn’t assume that an MBA program is going to teach them to be successful in business.
  • Students shouldn’t assume business school offers a good return on investment.
  • Business schools need to look carefully at their results and measure whether or not they are actually helping students succeed in the business world.
  • Business schools need to take care to teach skills that necessary in and ever changing job market.

Business schools have a very high vested interest in having successful students.  Some people have suggested that admittance to a top MBA program is a good indication that you don’t need the training from the program–you have what it takes to be successful on  your own.  In other words, if you can get admitted to an MBA program, it is a good indication that the opportunity costs of that program are greater (for you) than just launching into the business world directly.

College admission officials are normally not very good at determining whether a given candidate is going to be successful or not–at least not at the undergrad level.  I suppose by the time someone is applying for graduate school, there is enough data to have a better idea of their ability to succeed at the college level, so graduate business schools admissions may indeed be a better judge of someone’s future success.

If this is the case, recruiters should probably try to hire prospective students away from MBA programs.  They would get the full benefit of the student without the higher cost of someone who has obtained their MBA, the associated debt and higher salary expectations.  For the prospective student, this might not be a bad deal.  The prospect of starting to earn and get real world experience immediately may put them on a much faster career trajectory than an MBA degree as long as they are willing to work hard and can find a company organized to help mentor them.

In fact this may point to the ideal business training–mentoring.  If companies were willing to invest in mentoring programs and had a way to identify high potential recruits the same way business schools do, they may be able to employ top talent sooner and at a lower starting salary in a way that would be more beneficial and economical for both employer and employee.


Online Schools and Reputation


It isn’t hard to find schools and universities that are offering online classes.  It isn’t hard to find institutions that have good programs where you will learn a lot. What is a bit more difficult is determining how well a degree will serve you in getting jobs for the rest of your career.

When you attend a school, you are somewhat tying yourself to that schools reputation for the rest of your life.  Obviously when you are 50 years old and have years of experience and a proven track record, the school you attended doesn’t matter so much, but it is still going to show up on your CV.

When people are trying to choose a place to go to college, they need to consider the future.  What is the institution in question likely to do over the next 20 years and how will that change the value of your degree.

This is the main issue I see with schools like University of Phoenix and Capella University.  Even if they are fine institutions with impecable academics (and I’m not trying to comment on whether they are or aren’t), they are run with a profit motive which necessarily puts them in a different situation than other non-profit schools. If times get tough, their profit motive may prompt very different decision making than what you’d see at a non-profit school.

Students need to align themselves with institutions that offer stability in the future.  Would you rather tie your career to the reputation of University of Phoenix or to the reputation of an established state school, Harvard’s extension school or even a small lesser known non-profit college  that has been around for a century?

That isn’t to say that for-profit schools don’t have a place, but it is very important to understand the long term differences in getting a degree from a college that has been around for 15 years and is operated as a business and getting a degree from a college that has been around for 100 years and isn’t seeking to make a profit.

Goldilocks Bill


It looks like the president just signed a the “anti-hunger, anti-obesity school lunch bill”. I think it should have been called the, “just right school lunch bill”.

Creating An Online Experience


I’m seeing a lot of schools scrambling to try to offer online courses and degrees.  In particular I’m noticing community colleges are trying to ramp up their online degree programs as quickly as possible.  Community colleges are seeing a huge influx in demand for classes and degrees so they are trying to do their best to accomodate all the potential incoming students.

The problems is that you can’t just create a good online experience overnight. They are people who are are willing to sell you the technology you need, but a good online degree program requires an experience that doesn’t come from just having good software running the online interactions.  It takes time for people to get use to online classes.  This is usually less of a problem for students–many are very digitally savvy and interact with their friends more online than in real life.  However, teachers who are struggling to adapt to using the Internet often find that running all of their communications through a computer is a very difficult adjustment.

Executive Education in China and India


The Wall Street Journal had an interesting interview with David Yoffie talking about Harvard’s push into China and India with executive education.  It sounds like these aren’t typically  full executive MBA programs but rather customized courses dealing with a specific business need. Some interesting points from the article:

  • The average business financial literacy is lower among CEOs in China than in the US. Harvard is having success offering what appear to be fairly basic financial courses to CEOs in China.
  • While both India and China seem to value education, China is willing to pay significantly more than India.  India is only willing to pay about half of what people are willing to pay in the rest of the world for Harvard’s courses.
  • Businesses in India appear to have more formalized training in place than China and this may account for a greater willingness to pay more for education in China.
  • Right now Harvard is offering classes in India at a steep discount compared to other countries, but they hope to raise the prices in the future.

The question I have is, “why does it have to be so expensive?” Obviously if Harvard is losing money in India, they are going to need to raise their prices, but it doesn’t sound like that is the case.

MBA Degrees


People have interesting perceptions of an MBA degree. This is particularly true in smaller businesses. I’ve seen an MBA basically turn into a license to have horrible results.  For some reason the owners of small companies will often let a new hire with an MBA get by with all kinds of things they would never tolerate from anyone else. It is fascinating to watch.  My guess is that a lot of smaller self made entrepreneurs are insecure about their education so they tend to over-value a new employee with an MBA.

This isn’t to say that getting educated people isn’t good for a small business, but owners need to be very careful to make sure they aren’t letting their own personal history get in the way of having good judgment. They need to give themselves more credit for starting a business and on the fact that the MBA is coming to them for a job–not the other way around.

Technology and Education


Most people are focused on how technology is enabling online classes, but there are some huge steps being taken in using technology to help make the educational experience more efficient outside of simply taking courses online.  For example, there are a number of sites that let you compare courses to get a better idea of what classes you might want to take. Not only do these sites give you the general idea of the content of a class, but you can get reviews by other students, course rankings and even good reviews of entire academic institutions.

I know that when I’m looking for a product, Amazon reviews factor into my purchase decision–even when I’m not going to buy the item from Amazon.  We are getting to a point where the same thing is going to happen with college courses–students are going to be making their decision based on what other students experienced.  Eventually this may lead to a lot more competition for good teachers.  Students are going to be able to do detailed comparison of all aspects of their education and choose an institution that is best suited for their needs.  Colleges that attract the best teachers are going to attract a greater share of  students and with modern technology and online education they can scale a single teacher many times beyond what can be done in a traditional classroom.

Beyond simple course comparisons, there are some opportunities to leverage technology to really drive continual improvement in education.  What if test scores were constantly compared to course content?  You’d be able to identify which teaching approach is most effective for any piece of knowledge that needs to be taught to students.  You could also find which teachers are most effective at teaching each specific area of a course.  It may be that three teachers working together to teach biology–each focusing on their particular strong point would produce much better students than by teaching three separate classes.

Technology is also making it easier to get the out of classroom experience students need.  Software engineers can volunteer for open source projects and get valuable experience while still in college–even on high profile projects.  Students looking for apprenticeship programs can find opportunities that would have been nearly impossible to locate without an internet search engine. Students studying Arabic can use Skype to talk with other students in Iran and get real conversational experience on their own without leaving their dorm rooms.

The opportunities are growing rapidly and technology is enabling a number of things that would have been impossible just a few years ago.  Our children are going to face a very different educational environment that what we experienced.  The technology will enable a number of opportunities, but it still comes down to having motivated students.  An opportunity is just that–an opportunity.  It takes a good student to turn an opportunity into a great academic experience.  This is something that has been true in the past and will remain true in the future–regardless of technological advances.

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