Wednesday, August 28, 2013

 

Delicate Cutters



Last week, I was in a meeting with several colleagues, two of whom are Boomers, and one of whom is a fellow Gen X’er.  As the meeting wound down, the discussion shifted:

Boomer 1: Remember when all the local banks used to recruit here?  They’d hire all the liberal arts grads?

Boomer 2: Yes!  Or the big retailers like [name of dead chain] and [name of other dead chain].

B1: That’s right.  And then they’d put people in their management training programs.

(pause)

B1: When I graduated, I had four job offers before I finished.

(pause)

Me: What color is the sky on your planet?

X’er: (snarf)

B1: Blue.  That’s just the way it was.

Me: On behalf of generations X and Y, [colorful, if affectionate, expression of frustration]

X’er: When I graduated with my Master’s, I got a job at Subway.

I was reminded of that conversation yesterday in reading back-to-back articles in IHE about making aspects of college free.  One addressed the growing use of Open Educational Resources as a substitute for the buy-your-own-textbook model, and the other addressed an argument for making public higher education entirely free.

On the merits, I’m much more sympathetic to the former than to the latter.  Just this week a physics professor on my campus happily reported that he had found an OER substitute for the Intro to Physics text he had previously used; the students stand to save about 200 dollars for that class alone.  He reports that the new text is quite good, and he happily shared the news with colleagues around the college.  I was genuinely happy to hear it; for students who work part time jobs at or near the minimum wage, 200 bucks is real money.  To the extent that moving to OER means that students can afford to have the text on day one, and therefore won’t fall behind while they try to scrape up the money to buy the book, I’m all for it.  Since several OER providers cover their costs through foundation money, I’m not terribly worried about the economic underpinnings.  And to the extent that it starts to move folks away from the “single textbook” model, that’s probably a net gain anyway.  

Free higher education is another matter.  For now, suffice it to say that the operating expenses of running an entire college are far greater, and more complex, than the expenses in writing a book.  

But it’s telling that both ideas are getting traction now.  The latest recession has ground on long enough that it’s starting to feel like a new normal.  I’ve seen conflicting theories on whether this recession is a fundamental reset or just a really painful and extended hangover from a credit crunch, and I don’t pretend to know enough to take sides on that.  But the felt reality on the ground that my Boomer colleagues described hasn’t been true for quite a while.  

I’m fully on board with a host of reforms to make higher education more economically sustainable.  But at the end of the day, there’s just no substitute for a robust job market for new grads.  Take care of that, and we’ll have the breathing room to decide which reforms are actually helpful and which are just disguised suicide.  Fail to take care of that, and no amount of cost cutting will be enough, as sure as the sky is blue.

Comments:
Could you clarify if that is a calc-based or trig-based physics course? I am unaware of a calc-based open text.

Heh. I'm so old that I remember when the U of Calif was free. It would be interesting to revisit the taxation rates and budget distribution from those days.

I think you are missing the important detail that some colleges, mine among them, could run with zero tuition if we got less than what major R1 universities get per undergrad from this state. It really is a matter of whether the State intended to pay for research dominated work loads under the guise of undergrad education. I think they do, which is why the model persists.

Your funny story reminded me that some major corporations still bring in technical people such as engineers and put select ones on a management track. I wonder if that means they will go the way of [failed retailers] or if they will succeed while tech companies run by scientifically ignorant MBAs will fail.

PS - Some of our faculty are testing an open math book that they think has huge promise.

PPS - It isn't a recession that is lingering, it is the normal drawn-out process of recovering from a depression like those common in the (18)80s.
 
Co-sign CCPhysicist's funding comment. I tried to embellish that co-sign, but frankly, that comment says what I'd want to say way better than I could.

CCPhysicist: I won't speak for DD, but the OER textbook I'm using (and had a small review role in) is OpenStax' book, which is trig-based and really meant for pre-health professions (which is what I teach exclusively). There is an open calc-based text - Ben Crowell's Simple Nature - which I love, but Crowell's explanations are HARDLY traditional, so your opinions may vary.
 
As someone who graduated with a liberal arts BA in 2009, THANK YOU. It's impossible for students to know what they're getting themselves into if their advisors have no clue just how challenging it really is to get a job related to your degree. I'm not saying it's like that for everyone - a year after I graduated, I found my perfect career-starting position with a young, growing company. It's been more than three years and no sign of stopping (thank Jesus). But it's not surprising that lots of my peers continue to get a law degree, business degree, or professional (or any) master's degree. I'm reminded of the escalation argument you made about nursing degrees. General "inflation" of credentials.
 
The conversation with your boomer colleagues is telling. I've had similar interactions with faculty who've imprinted (for lack of a better term) on a previous job market model or example that no longer applies.

I'd say somewhere about 25-30 years ago (just my opinion here--it could be longer than that), it became no longer enough to have a (liberal arts) degree and a pulse to be able to walk into a job and be trained. Employers don't want to spend money on training; they want "job-ready" applicants. So it's the degree PLUS relevant experience (industry internships, part-time job, etc.) that gets you a shot. I think [liberal arts] institutions are starting to recognize this, but they're late to the game.
 
"But at the end of the day, there’s just no substitute for a robust job market for new grads."

Hear, hear!

75% of new hires this year were part-timers. I don't believe we have a precedent for this phenomenon at this stage of a "recovery." What we are seeing is more likely a structural change in the economy, one which will challenge a host of assumptions. Including the need and role of higher education.

The troublesome trend in jobs, it matters only who you know, not what you know.
 
it matters only who you know, not what you know.

Thus it has always been and shall ever be. Seriously.

Internships, internships, internships. Grow your network. Even if your degree teaches actual skills that directly translate into a job, that's the only way to get employed. There are some things you only learn by working. Any prof that advises their students otherwise is doing them a disservice.
 
I graduated three decades ago with an engineering degree, and in spite of all the talk about the shortage of technical skills, less than 20% of my graduating class got jobs in their field.

I thought then, and I still think now, that "skill shortage" is management-speak for "shortage of skilled people willing to work for what we want to pay them". I also note that the rhetoric about needing to pay enough to attract good people stops as soon as you get below upper management level…
 
" Intro to Physics text he had previously used; the students stand to save about 200 dollars for that class alone. "

I'd like to point out that this is a rather standard class; a book costing $200 is simply not justifiable.

For specialized books, that might be justifiable. I have a couple of books which were written by one or two of a dozen people in the world who *could* write them. But this is not that.


 
" it matters only who you know, not what you know.

Anonymous:" Thus it has always been and shall ever be. Seriously.

Internships, internships, internships. Grow your network. Even if your degree teaches actual skills that directly translate into a job, that's the only way to get employed. There are some things you only learn by working. Any prof that advises their students otherwise is doing them a disservice."

No. If the job market's good, then non-networked people have adequate job prospects, while networked people have great job prospects.

If the job market's lousy, then non-networked people have nothing, while networked people have miserable job prospects.

The economy makes a huge difference, and this is rather solid.
 
NYC did fabulously well with free city colleges until the state crunched the system because of envy. How many Nobel Prize winners? and of course workers.


 
I wish you were right Barry about an intro book not costing $200. I teach general chemistry and all the major textbooks run 150-250$. I have read a lot of different textbooks and would not inflict most of them on my students so I don't feel I have much choice but to require an expensive one that is readable.
 
I agree with Barry@3:54PM. It isn't justifiable. It is, however, reality.

Thanks for the info, Prof Pearson. A colleague teaches that class and is similarly getting fed up with the cost of both new and used copies of the frequently revised text he uses. It should be worth a look.

One problem with some of the OERs is that it is just a single-author book with dubious editing or review. I like that the book you use has multiple authors. Based only on its table of contents, it also seems reasonable that one could "easily" revise it to be a calc-based text.
 
Thanks a lot for providing us a very good post.
 
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