Sunday, December 02, 2012


Zuckerberg as Example? Really?

This just in: well-connected rich white kids who drop out of Princeton can still do well in life, and the New York Times is ON IT.

Well, that’s a relief.

It’s also hugely unrepresentative.  Worse, the popularity of the story may well serve a corrosive political agenda.

This week’s version of “who needs college, anyway?” comes to us from the New York Times.  The Times profiles several Ivy League dropouts in their twenties who have started high-tech companies, and uses their stories to cast doubt on whether college is really necessary or helpful.  

In a vacuum, I have no issue with a claim that college isn’t for everyone.  It isn’t.  If the thought of structured education gives you hives, and you can’t wait to light out for the territories, then by all means, have at it.  Part of what makes college different from high school is the fact that it’s voluntary.  If you desperately want out, you can get out, and people do.  And yes, some of those people wind up spectacularly successful.  Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg -- hyperintelligent, well-connected white guys who drop out of high-toned institutions and hire lots of people with computer science Ph.D.’s can occasionally hit the jackpot.  

But that doesn’t change the fact that the typical college dropout faces dramatically worse life outcomes than does the typical college graduate.  The typical college dropout isn’t dropping out of Harvard.  For every Zuckerberg, there are thousands of students from more modest backgrounds, whose real-world economic options are relatively sparse and unforgiving.  The reasonably well-paid blue collar aristocracy isn’t what it used to be, and outside of North Dakota’s drilling encampments, it generally isn’t hiring.  (Or if it is, it’s hiring at a permanently lower wage than a previous generation was able to get.)  And even moving beyond strictly monetary measurements, college graduates tend to vote more, to stay married at higher rates, to live longer, to own homes, and to be more likely overall provide the kind of lives for their children that social conservatives tend to embrace.  This suggests a non-abstract public good that widespread higher education serves.

The “who needs college, anyway?” meme draws on several sources.  One, obviously, is the Great Recession; it’s no coincidence that skepticism towards college has spiked just when job prospects for college grads have withered.  (Of course, good job prospects for folks without degrees have suffered even more.)  The emergence of online education and its variants -- MOOCs, most recently -- has made possible options that simply weren’t possible a few years ago.  Student loan debt is a real issue, especially for dropouts, and the recession has done a real number on both cost (through aid cuts) and ability to pay back (through the job market).  And the underlying march of Baumol’s cost disease is getting harder to ignore.

But taking the occasional “free agent” as somehow representative is as absurd as suggesting that LeBron James shows us that we need to encourage more kids to play basketball.  The Times article quotes someone saying he knows people with six figure incomes from dog-walking businesses.  I don’t.  And I bet you don’t, either.

A few years ago, in a review of Anya Kamenetz’ DIY U, I issued a challenge that still stands:

Eleemosynary institutions have real and serious flaws, but they exist to empower the weak. They are necessary to empower the weak. If you rend them asunder, you will expose the weak to the predations of the strong. This is so fundamental that I'm surprised it even needs to be brought up. If it weren't scandalously unethical, I'd propose an experiment: take two sets of kids who barely got through a weak school district. Send one set to the local community college, and tell the other set it's free to educate itself under digital bridges. Come back in, say, ten years, and compare the results on any scale you want. Then talk to me about "edupunks."

Kamenetz, Peter Thiel, and the various other partisans of the Brave New World of empowered dropouts celebrate the “unbundling” of the services that colleges offer, but they neglect to mention that part of the “bundle” is economic opportunity.  It’s a form of civic investment.

Public higher education -- and, indeed, indirect public support of private higher education through Pell grants and subsidized loans -- reflects an ethical position that holds that education should not be the exclusive province of the wealthy and powerful.  That ethical position, in turn, rests on an epistemological humility, a recognition that we do not know where the next great minds are.  Yes, some of them are born into privilege, but many aren’t.  The son of the Brookline attorney is no more morally worthy than the daughter of a Chillicothe waitress.  And sometimes, the next great breakthrough comes from someone from Chillicothe, or East St. Louis, or Buffalo.  

For years, the great political battle involved bringing the institutions that serve Brookline into Chillicothe.  Now, apparently, the great political battle will involve getting the Brookline kids not to abandon them.

Left to its own devices, the unbundling that technology enables can easily lend itself to greater class polarization.  If you already have money and contacts and a solid education and access to all sorts of high-tech stuff, you may be able to top it off with some MOOCs and still come out fine.  But if you’re a more typical American, you need much more than a disaggregated set of catch-as-catch-can DIY options can offer.  You need legibility, and advisement, and contacts, and time.  You need a college.  And it would be a mistake, if not a crime, to let the daring exploits of a few well-placed high flyers provide political cover for destroying the best hope of the many.

The earlier article can also be found here on the blogger version, with a separate set of comments. I won't repeat mine, which are clearly still valid.
"But that doesn’t change the fact that the typical college dropout faces dramatically worse life outcomes than does the typical college graduate."

I guess I buy that graduation from college is correlated with dramatically improved life outcomes but, to me, it's sure not clear why that should be.

Apparently it doesn't matter what college you go to, what you study, or how good your grades are. Just graduating from college dramatically improves your prospects.

What skills, knowledge, habits, etc. has the typical graduate left college with that he did not possess upon entrance that account for these improved prospects?

Larry: Many employers simply will not hire a person without a college degree for a non-menial position. The paper itself carries more value than the education.
Not ewveryone who makes it big as a college dropout is a tech whiz. Some, especially in the older generation, are in construction, the restaurant industry, etc. But what they all have in common is that they are autodidacts and very driven. The tech whiz types went to good high schools and absorbed everything those high schools could offer them, and have learned by late adolescence how to manage teams. The article is basically about people who are extreme outliers.
"Left to its own devices, the unbundling that technology enables can easily lend itself to greater class polarization."

This. Over and over and over again until it sinks in.
I'm in music. It happens that a number of big pop/rock stars dropped out of music school. So, clearly music school is not needed for career success, if your career plan is major stardom. This seems like a similarly silly line of reasoning.
nail on the head by Randyflagg.

it's a system that feeds on itself, and creates its own problems.

anyone who can read can learn everything you need to know in college, and at an even faster rate.

how many people took college classes and never went to class, yet still made an A? A WHOLE LOT. i know i did. what value was that class? and why did i need to pay $2k to read some books that i could've read on my own?

and "Left to its own devices, the unbundling that technology enables can easily lend itself to greater class polarization."
- this is 50% bullcrap. in my career, i've experienced many a person who was left behind due to the refusal to learn new tech, not because of the tech itself. i'm getting older, and there's new stuff out there. there's kids out there a lot younger than me who struggle with new tech more than i do. it's all about hustle.

when the 70 year old guy in the office can learn it, and the 50 year old can't do it, the problem ain't the tech.
Thanks for saying this. Just had this conversation with my well-educated parents this past weekend. Many of my students start to get it after intensive teaching and advising - not all of them do, but those that do need the push. There's no way they would have the realization or transformation if left to their own devices. Hell - I don't think my 18 year old self would have either. If I had been left to figure it out on my own, there would have been MANY lost and unproductive years in there.
"well-connected rich white kids who drop out of Princeton"

What does "white" have to do with anything here? Are well-connected rich Hispanic kids who drop out of Princeton or well-connected rich black kids who drop out of Princeton doomed to a life of poverty?
"education should not be the exclusive province of the wealthy and powerful."


How about, education should be the exclusive province of the intelligent and motivated?

"What does "white" have to do with anything here? "
Those are the people profiled in the NY Times article.
"Those are the people profiled in the NY Times article."

Uh, not exclusively. In fact, race is not mentioned even once in the article. How many of the many people do you even know the race of? How is race even remotely relevant?

"Well-connected" is relevant. "Rich" is relevant. "White" absolutely is not. That Dean Dad chooses to make it an issue (more than once!--it's not a throwaway) says more about him than about anything else.
Although it is certainly true that college graduates tend on the average to do better economically than those who have no college, it is also true that a college degree seems to be worth a lot less on the job market than it used to be.

Back in the day when I went to college, there was a reasonable assurance that once you graduated from college you were reasonably certain of being able to get a job that paid a living wage and that offered benefits and pension options, one that would enable you aspire to live a middle class lifestyle under which you would be able to afford to get married, to have children, and to own your own home. Today things are different—getting a college degree seems to be worth less than it used to be. Unless they happen to be fortunate enough to have majored in those few fields that are currently “hot”, lots of college graduates seem nowadays to have a serious problem in finding full-time employment in their fields. They end up living at home with their parents while working in crappy part-time jobs that provide no benefits and which have no future, while they search in vain for something more permanent that would enable them to start establishing an independent middle-class lifestyle. Unless you have graduated from a top-tier R1 university or from the snootiest of the SLACS, your diploma isn’t really worth all that much.

A lot of students seem to be discovering that a college diploma isn’t really worth all that much nowadays, certainly not worth incurring a lifetime of debt in order to acquire one. This is especially true at the proprietary art school where I teach. Our enrollment is way down, probably because students are finding that a degree from our school isn’t really worth much on the job market, certainly not worth the high cost that we charge. Students are finding that they can get just as good a deal by going to a community college, where the costs are a lot lower.

Oops, I do have something to add.

Based on past comments, ArtMathProf and I appear to be from about the same generation. "Back in the Day" when I went to college, the probability that someone who got "a degree" would have a living wage and a pension and benefits through their working career was not much better than if you went directly to work in the auto plants with a good head on your shoulders. Granted, this did depend on where you grew up.

Those folks younger than us that you see at "The Villages"? I know that some of them are 50-something retired UAW auto workers or civil servants. How many are 50-something retired professors?

Today, things are different. Period. Full stop.

Some college degrees are worth a LOT more than they used to be. Some are worth a lot less, no matter where you got it. Some non-college (but requiring post-HS education) technical skills are worth a lot more than they used to be, while others are worth less because they can be electronically or physically outsourced.

However, things are also the same today. The school on that piece of paper might get you in the door, but it is what you can actually DO that keeps you employed and gets you promoted. That has not changed. And that is why education has always been the province of the well-motivated, whether they attend college or not.
One of the primary reasons why a college degree is so vital for employment today is Griggs v. Duke Power and its subsequent codification in the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Under Griggs, the use of IQ or related tests for employment is considered racial discrimination, as is the requirement for a high school diploma. However, requiring applicants to have a college degree seems to be safe for employers based on existing precedent, so that's what they have done, especially when the labor market is slack. You can't specifically hire only high-IQ individuals without running afoul of the EEOC, but you can see what college someone graduated from and use that as a proxy measurement for SAT scores, which in turn are a proxy measurement of IQ.
SAT scores, which in turn are a proxy measurement of IQ

As opposed to being an actual measurement of how much you could afford to invest in preparing for the SAT?

Sorry, but given how much the College Board seems to flog study materials, courses, etc — all extra help to pass a test they set — the SATs seem less a measure of intelligence and more a measure of how much time/money you can spend preparing for them.

Clear case of conflict of interest.
Randyflagg at 10:48 said

"Many employers simply will not hire a person without a college degree for a non-menial position. The paper itself carries more value than the education. "

When the college mission changed from education to credentialing, the value of having the decree changed also. It's why the value has collapsed.
An aside- statistically, white does matter here. Black and hispanic students get a higher earnings boost from actually going to an elite college than white students (comparing to a control group who were also accepted to the elite school but went somewhere else).
Although they can control for family income, I suppose they can't exactly control for "well-connectedness" (it's relatively intangible). It's perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that black and hispanic students benefit from elite schools because they provide a network of Important People to socialize with, and the white students who get accepted to those schools already have access to such networks at a higher rate. Country club effects.
“College puts a lot of constraints, a lot of limitations around what you can and can’t do,” Mr. Hagen said. “Some people, they want to stretch their arms, get out and create more, do more.”

In what way, Mr. Hagen? I am not aware of any teams of security guards patroling dorm rooms, on the lookout for entrepreneurial actvitiy to squash. If our students want to develop an app and become freethinking billionaire dropouts in the process, they are more than welcome to.

And none of this is new. I had all of these same thoughts when I dropped out of college in the mid-90s; I just didn't have some NYT writer drooling over the decision as though I was some kind of hip revolutionary. I liked my job better than I liked being in a classroom, and I thought that I would be better, smarter, faster, and more productive by dropping out. Education could be gleaned from trips to the library and little more. (No MOOCs back then!)

It worked, in its way. I was employed and employable. But I wasn't exceptional. Most people are not - that's the very root of the word. I didn't change the world, I didn't take all my go-get-em energy and create the Next Big Thing.

Meanwhile, any time I wanted to change jobs (and you're supposed to change jobs often when you're a young, hip person Taking On The World), I'd hit the education hurdle. If I could get into an organization at a lower level, I could work my way up quite quickly, but folks don't want to give you the benefit of the doubt without that credential. In the end, even though promotions were often relatively quick, I wasted too much time in lower level jobs because I couldn't get in the door at a new place without taking that hit. My peers who did have college degrees didn't have to do that, and I fell behind over time.

Not to mention how lousy I was at teaching myself. It turned out I got a lot more education in my education if actual teachers and peer students were involved.

Is that right and fair? I don't know. I think there are a lot of good, important arguments to be had over the role of a college degree as a credential or a screening tool. We are now at the point where we expect this credential for administrative assistants, and this seems patently ridiculous.

But as long as most people aren't exceptional and as long as most workplaces aren't in Silicon Valley, I'm not sure what lessons we are supposed to glean from tech culture eschewing higher education.
Thanks for this post. I also read that article and dragged my feet on posting a response. But now it is up on my blog. You are given props. Best.
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