Monday, September 22, 2014

Earnings and Asterisks

I’m convinced that this Hechinger Report piece is a prank by someone who likes to see me get worked up.  It’s hard to explain it any other way.

According to Hechinger, a new CAPSEE (Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment) report claims that

the large proportion of community-college students who major in the liberal arts, humanities, and general studies receive little or no financial advantage at all in exchange for their time and tuition. Nor do recipients of many newly trendy professional certificates.

But there’s a pretty significant asterisk.  Notably, the data

doesn’t track whether those humanities majors ultimately transfer to four-year universities and colleges and boost their income by earning bachelor’s degrees.


If you count students who transfer as juniors as underemployed -- since full-time students generally don’t make very much -- then yes, you’ll wind up with low numbers.  The same holds true for exclusive four-year schools; if you count all of Williams’ recent grads who are in law school, med school, or grad school as underemployed, you’d get some weird figures there, too.  It’s a bad measure.

It would be one thing simply to exclude students who transferred on to the next stage of education.  That would still distort the picture somewhat, but at least it wouldn’t penalize colleges for sending students onward.  But to fail to sort out transfers from the underemployed or unemployed is actively misleading.  

At the community college level, liberal arts majors are geared specifically for transfer.  Many students choose liberal arts majors for exactly that reason.  They’re readying themselves for transfer in an inexpensive and convenient way.  Not because, as the report would have it:

Researchers speculated that students at community colleges may end up in the liberal arts because there’s not enough room in nursing or technical programs, or because they’re not aware of the earnings implications.


People choose majors for all sorts of reasons.  Yes, sometimes they choose by default, or because their friends or siblings chose something.  Sometimes they change majors because they find that the first choice didn’t work out for them, for whatever reason.  And sometimes they choose a major because...wait for it...they like it.  

It’s entirely possible that a “terminal” liberal arts Associate’s degree spells trouble.  Then again, it might not; since the study doesn’t exclude all those college juniors, we can’t even infer that.  From this research, there’s no way of knowing.

I wouldn’t mind so much, except that the headline will attract most of the attention.  It has that superficially brave “saying what everybody thinks” frisson that cloaks prejudice in a thin layer of courage.  It’s clickbait.  It’s also potentially damaging.

If student debt is a serious concern, we should be looking at liberal arts transfers from community colleges as part of the solution.  Denigrating them as part of the problem will only feed the desperation to get into places that charge thousands of dollars for freshman comp.  

If a research design is as fundamentally flawed as this one, it has no business being published.  This isn’t the brave telling of difficult truths.  This is trolling.  I just hope people read past the headline before ratifying any prejudices.