Thursday, October 13, 2011


What We Talk About When We Talk About Markets

The recent silliness in Florida, in which the governor is questioning the need for more anthropologists, got me to thinking about the whole idea of market demand for degrees. When we speak of market demand for certain disciplines, which market do we mean?

There’s the market for B.A. grads (or A.A. grads, or A.S. grads) in private industry. Looking solely at that, you’d conclude that a field like psychology is pretty much DOA.

Then there’s the market for Ph.D. grads in a given discipline. There, psychology looks stronger, but English isn’t looking too hot.

Then there’s the market for seats in classes, or campus-based demand. Looking at that market, English and psych are both healthy, but engineering doesn’t look too good.

Some of the friction between colleges and states, I’m convinced, has to do with which market you look at. The two sides are looking at different markets, and drawing different conclusions. And as we move to “market-based” reforms, the divergence will grow.

On campus, the plain-vanilla gen ed disciplines are in consistently high demand. Some of that, of course, is a function of distribution requirements within degree programs, but the tuition is where the tuition is.

But distribution only explains a small part of the picture. Students cluster into majors like English and Psychology voluntarily, choosing them over engineering or computer science. They do that despite a well-orchestrated campaign telling all and sundry that tech is where the jobs are. Even many of the vocational programs -- criminal justice, human services, culinary -- are mostly non-technical.

It’s easy for folks on the outside to look at colleges as the personnel offices of the economy, and to request more engineers and fewer comparative lit majors. It’s even possible, if difficult, to shift funding around to encourage some paths more than others.

But at the end of the day, any policy that fails to account for both student choices and institutional imperatives is doomed to irrelevance.

Students aren’t drafted into majors. They select them. And students select majors for a host of reasons, perceived marketability being only one of them (and “perceived” is the key word). Some students won’t have anything to do with advanced math. Some will only do what their friends do. Some select for personal taste, some for perceived ease of completion and/or grading, and some just sort of drift through. (I was in the “personal taste” category.)

Colleges respond to the preferences that students express with their feet. It’s all well and good to hear a governor say that we need fewer psych majors and more engineering grads. But if the students avoid engineering like the plague and stuff the psych lectures full, and if my college is tuition-driven, then what, exactly, do you expect me to do?

If you want colleges to be able to channel students away from their expressed preferences and towards something else, you need to give those colleges the financial cushion to reduce the relevance of student tuition. In other words, if you want colleges to be more responsive to the “employer” market, you have to make them less dependent on the “student” market.

The usual ritualistic bleating about “market-based reforms,” on the one side, and “learning for learning’s sake,” on the other, fails to account for the paradox. What students want to take, and what employers want students to take, are not the same thing. If you want colleges to discount the former in favor of the latter, you have to pay for it. Otherwise, colleges will do what they have to do, and those anthropologists will just keep on coming. If the governor of Florida wants to snuff out psychology, he’ll need to pony up some serious cash to make all those small STEM classes sustainable. Failing that, he’s just blowing smoke. The markets have spoken.

Speaking as a former engineer, if companies want engineers, they should make the profession more enticing.If I'd have realized the low pay*, low respect, and low job security I wouldn't have sweated through four years of engineering.

Kids are smarter today — they look at how engineers are treated and decide that's not what they want to put up with for 40 years.

*Compared to, say, an accountant in the same firm.
I see a lot of unjustified fear of math brought on by society and by terrible K-12 math instruction. This bad instruction especially seems to hit my female students who internalize it, thinking that they're the ones who are just not good at math.

Mathy majors will be more attractive when math is less scary. Math will be less scary if taught better K-12. How to fix that without funneling a lot of resources into math K-12 teaching is what we call an open question.
Getting desired social change and a better tomorrow by paying for it?

That's COMMIE TALK, boy! Ain't you learned nuthin' 'bout America? That ain't how we do things 'round here! [Adujusts crotch, spits, revels in petty and mean-spirited caricature.]
Let's face it, the current fashion in obsessing about degree marketability is all about the financial recession. Engineering, Physics, Nursing and Medicine have always been more 'marketable' than English, Anthropology and Psychology. Now that it is so much tougher to find a job, politicians, demagogues (to often one in the same) and pundits are obsessing about the so-called marketability of a degree. And, this is exacerbated by rapid increases in tuition at public institutions as they struggle to serve students amid massive cuts in state and federal education funding.

One of the downsides of all this is that I meet students every day who have chosen to enter a particular discipline because of 'marketability', instead of personal interest. Every day, I hear students telling me they intend to become engineers even though their math skills are not strong, or they are pre-med even though their grades are at best average, or they are going to be a nurse even though they faint at the sight of blood. It doesn't do much good to tell those students that they don't have the requisite skills for those occupations, just like trying to tell an Anthropology major that it will be tough for them to find a job.
I can't vouch for the phenomenon generally, but I'd say a goodly 80% or so of the whinging of employers about STEM grads is simply wishing to pay people less. I know too many unemployed STEM folks to take it remotely seriously. There is no "safe and
employable" major.

Ultimately, I realized a while ago that blaming students for majoring in the wrong subject was just another way to justify the system not actually doing that social-mobility thing.

In fairness, the other 20% of company whinging is due to local shortages (i.e. this firm can't get these people, usually due to poor location or obscure/really high tech or novel skillsets). Those are real discrepancies, and they come in part from assuming students will have enough information to choose the educational path needed to prepare them for those jobs, and in part from the time delay it takes to train people. The invisible hand is not particularly efficient for this.

and nicoleandmaggie is (are?) right- at least within certain contexts, mathphobia accounts for a ridiculous skewing of preferences.
Overall, there's some good themes here.

I just want to say that the only major with near 100% job placement is one that trains students how to write amazing resumes, ace interviews, and creatively problem solve tasks assigned to them at work efficiently while producing a neat summary report at the end. I'm fairly sure these majors don't exist.

As well, the demand for students who can think critically and have basic numeracy and literacy skills is quite high. Unfortunately even graduates of graduate programs (let alone undergrad and college level) don't often have these skills.
I can't speak for anyone else, but I didn't really feel like I had much of a choice except to be a liberal arts major.

I failed Algebra I in 8th grade and had to take it twice. Thus, I was consistiently a year behind my peers in math. The same peers I routinely trumped in english and history classes. I knew I wasn't dumb, but I sure felt "dumb in math." It didn't endear me to the subject.

So, once I got to college, it would have taken several semesters of math to just get me up to the level where most STEM majors start. Nothing about that proposition was attractive. Even if I could have mustered up the confidence to believe I was capable of all that math (a stretch, for sure) to my 17 year old self, it seemed like a lot of time wasted.

My adult brain, of course, understands a couple of semesters is nothing when you're talking about lifetime earnings. But at the time, I just wanted to minimize my time in college and maximize my GPA. The liberal arts fit nicely with both goals. I can get my ass kicked in calculus or I can be the star in early american literature? It wasn't even a contest.

My father (who didn't even go to college) tried to sell me on more "practical" majors many times, but I wouldn't hear it. And that's a big part of this market problem. Your market is teenagers. They are not known for their skill in long-term planning. Not that any other major would necessarily have been right for me, but it just didn't even feel like an option. Liberal arts are the default when you don't know what the hell else to do. It's not some intrinsic value that students anthropology courses.

In the end, I turned out okay enough. I have a job; I went to college in the late 90s, so I had a decade of experience before the recession hit. But I'm making a fraction of what my friends and loved ones, including my husband, make with degrees in engineering, CS, business and law. Even now. Does that bother me? Only when the bills roll in. My salary alone can cover either daycare for my kids or rent, but not both. There is something inherently demeaning in working hard and being successful in your limited world, but not being able to support your family anyway.

I do think JMG is absolutely right. There was a time, I believe, when any bachelors degree was seen as a sign that you could think critically, work efficiently, etc. But that's not the case anymore, and folks who aren't STEM-inclined just don't know what else to do.
The whole "get a marketable degree, liberal arts is pointless and/or an anchor on your future" argument dates back a long, long time. I got earfuls of it in my undergrad days, a goodly while back.

To a large extent, it's true, because the large majority of employers have never given a rat's shaven hindquarters about a new hire's problem-solving abilities or capacity for learning. They want immediately applicable skills. Without those, you were pretty well boned even in the boom years. I built up some amazing rants during those years, I assure you.

What always surprised me was how unhelpful science and math degrees were for my friends. Allegedly marketable, actually not much better than a philosophy BA. Though this was all my own observations, so, as they say on the internet and old car commercials, your mileage may vary.

The fact that it's many times worse today than it was in mine is horrifying. You poor young bastards. I'm so sorry.
If you want to make STEM classes more appealing, you have to go something about GPA and workload in those classes compared to others. While there are some students for whom math is much easier than social sciences or humanities, my experience is that even those students spend more time on their homework from STEM courses than on their non-STEM courses, and that STEM professors are much more willing to hand out F's and D's than non-STEM professors.

I once got the class median grade (some flavor of B) on a 300-level communication midterm that I started doing the reading for 2 or 3 hours before the exam (I'd attended all the lectures, so I was able to answer many of the questions from simply that). If I hadn't cracked my 200-level discrete math book open until three hours before the midterm I wouldn't have bothered going to the exam, just to the registrar's office to drop the course.

Since I had to keep a 3.0 GPA to keep my scholarship, it made it difficult to chose classes in STEM areas since I could not afford to continue with college at all if I could not keep a B average, and I needed to pick at least one easy-A class a term in order to balance each possible-C math class. I worked much, much harder for my C in differential equations than for my A in public speaking (admittedly, I had no fear of public speaking going in and had spoken in front of large crowds prior to the class, so I had a major advantage), but the scholarship people didn't care (in my experience, neither do the college-wide grad school admissions people, as opposed to the academic departments, which absolutely do).

I don't want to dumb down the STEM courses, but I do want something done about the GPA disincentive that I experienced trying to take them. (I may just be a natural genius in communication and dull normal in math, but I kind of doubt it. I shared my school's high score for the year on the Putnam math competition as a senior, so I suspect I am, in fact, not that terrible at math.)
"Ultimately, I realized a while ago that blaming students for majoring in the wrong subject was just another way to justify the system not actually doing that social-mobility thing."

This is actually the beginning, the middle, and the end of this discussion. We are not making less than our parents because we are less productive. We are making less than our parents because of the Class War. The Class War is the problem.
One of my nieces lost a multi-year scholarship because she didn't maintain the marks (in a STEM major). She was still invited to all the dinners and meetings for the winners every year, just no money. It rankled to see people cruising on minimum course loads in easy courses getting $10k while she was studying 80 hours a week and getting a chicken dinner.
Students aren’t drafted into majors. They select them. And students select majors for a host of reasons [. . .]

A couple days ago I posted on exactly this issue with surprisingly similar language:

But colleges and universities, whatever their rhetoric, aren’t bastions of pure idealistic knowledge; they’re also businesses, and they respond to customer demand. In other words, student demand. Students choose their own major, and it isn’t exactly news that engineers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and the like tend to make much more money than other majors, or that people in those disciplines are much more likely to find jobs. Students, however, by and large don’t choose them: they choose business, communications (“comm” for the university set), and sociology [. . .]

I keep seeing people write about how universities are "failing" students and the like. But those people seem to ignore that students are part of this process.
nicoleandmaggie: "Mathy majors will be more attractive when math is less scary. Math will be less scary if taught better K-12. How to fix that without funneling a lot of resources into math K-12 teaching is what we call an open question."

No, it's pretty much a closed question. It won't be fixed without more money. And since the trend now is to spend less money, and to have as much as possible stick to the hands of the for-profit corporations pushing 'school reform', it will get worse.
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