Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics (Higher Education "Reform" Edition)

Following this summer's seminar on the liberal arts at Transylvania University, I resolved to more consciously talk about the liberal arts with my new crop of first-year students in my Humanities class this semester. Last week, we spent a full class period talking about their reasons for coming to Wofford, and Wofford's commitment to a liberal arts education. We'll spend two more classes this week discussing it. They should understand what they're getting into, I think.

The beginning of the academic year always prompts some thinking about the purpose of education, even among those not engaged in it. Frank Bruni has an interesting piece in the New York Times arguing that higher education has an obligation to challenge students: "college needs to be an expansive adventure, yanking students toward unfamiliar horizons and untested identities rather than indulging and flattering who and where they already are." I couldn't agree more.

The Times also carried another piece that conveys the more dominant view in American culture: that college, first and foremost, is about getting a job.

Ben Carpenter, vice chairman of the CRT Capital Group, argues that what is missing from college today is "career education." For Carpenter, it is not enough for colleges to provide majors geared toward professional pursuits, and to have Career Services offices. The college must also offer courses in "career training":
So what can be done to make certain these young adults are being prepared for life post-graduation? The answer is simple: Colleges need to create, and require for graduation, a course in career training that would begin freshman year and end senior year.
(Note to self: remind students to always beware whatever statement follows the phrase "The answer is simple.")

The first thing worth noticing here is Carpenter's choice of words. He is clear about what his concern is: "how to get, and succeed at, a job." But the title of the article isn't "Is Your Student Prepared for a Job?--it is "Is Your Student Prepared for Life?" Throughout the piece, Carpenter uses the words "job," "career," and "life" interchangeably.

It does not take a liberal arts education to know that those words do not mean the same things. Too often in discussions of education, we elide the differences, so when talking to my students last week, I made the difference explicit. A liberal arts education is meant to prepare you, I said, not just to make a living, but to make a life.

I do not know whether Carpenter intentionally conflates "job" and "life" to confuse the reader, or if he honestly does not see a meaningful distinction between the two. Either way, doing so has the effect of perpetrating the idea that your job is your life and so college is only about getting a job.

The second issue that got my attention was that Carpenter employs what seems to me the knee-jerk "reform" response to every perceived challenge in higher education: make it part of the curriculum! I have no problem with the idea that colleges should help students find post-graduate employment. Here at Wofford, The Space is devoted to that project, and does a lot of good for our students. But it is not part of the curriculum.

That's not what Carpenter is calling for; in fact, he denigrates Career Service offices as suffering from a "major disconnect" with students. He wants "a course," one that lasts for four years and is required of all students. Since Carpenter does not get more specific, it is hard to know whether he means a course every semester for four years, or one course a year, or one course that lasts four years. But he clearly is talking about making it part of the curriculum.

It is self-evident that every new course requirement reduces the electives available for students to take to investigate their own passions or interests. The more expansive Carpenter's plan, the fewer academic courses students in it will take. It is hard not to wonder if that isn't part of the idea. If college exists merely to train workers, what do they need those electives for, anyway?

Finally, there is the matter of the precise problem that is driving his proposal. At the start of the article, Carpenter states:
According to a recent poll conducted by AfterCollege, an online entry-level job site, 83 percent of college seniors graduated without a job this spring.
In contrast, toward the end, he cites an example that suggests the efficacy of what he proposes:
One year after graduation, 96 percent of all Connecticut College alumni report that they are employed or in graduate school.
One of the things my liberal arts education taught me is to look closely and carefully when someone cites statistics. On the surface, the difference seems stark: 83 percent with no job, 96 percent employed! See, the answer is simple! Certainly that's what Carpenter wants us to think. But a moment's consideration shows that he's doing the old apples and oranges comparison.

The AfterCollege survey only purports to measure only how many students reported having a job lined up before graduation. The accuracy of that number may be questionable, since it was an online survey, and not, as Carpenter says, a scientific "poll." Second, the fine print on the survey reveals that the respondents not just students about to graduate--a majority had already graduated, 23.38 percent were college seniors, and 12.25 percent were juniors. (Safe to say that few if any juniors already have a job lined up for after graduation.)

The 83 percent number comes just from students still in school, including those juniors. For recent grads, the number is 76.3 percent. No doubt that's a big number, but it is not 83. In addition, since the survey was conducted between February 27 and April 15, 2014, some seniors who answered "no" in late February or March may well have had jobs by the time they graduated in May 2014.

In short, it is not true that 83 percent of last year's graduates had no job at graduation, even according to this survey.

Now let's look at the Connecticut College numbers. By contrast, they are not a mix of recent grads and current juniors and seniors. They measure an entire graduating class. In no way can that group be reasonably compared to the AfterCollege survey respondents. In addition, it measures the outcome for those students one year after graduation.

A true comparison would require surveying only graduating seniors right after they graduated and then comparing the number with jobs to the number with jobs one year later. A year makes a huge difference in the job search, as does being out of school--I recall not feeling much urgency about getting a job until after I graduated. In my experience, most college seniors are preoccupied with either the successful completion of their degrees or enjoying the final months with friends they've known for three and a half years, or both. The job search gets serious after graduation.

In addition, the Connecticut number lumps together the employed and those who are going to graduate school--those planning to attend graduate school of course do not have a job lined up before graduation. For all we know, a significant percentage of those reporting "no job" in the AfterCollege survey may well have had plans to go to graduate school.

The Connecticut College program may well be worthwhile and do great good. But Carpenter's comparison is misleading. I have no idea whether Carpenter realizes that the comparison of the two numbers is misleading, but it is. I have to think if he had direct apples-to-apples comparisons that served his argument, he would have used them instead. But I suspect that they would not have been nearly as stark as the ones he uses.

As I stated in my last post, the idea that colleges are miserably failing their students by not preparing them for the working world is simply not true. It is true that few graduates move seamlessly from college straight into their dream jobs. But the idea that somehow there is a problem so significant that students must replace some of their academic courses with "career training" courses--and that such courses will solve the problem in what is still an extremely competitive and tight job market--is just silly.

But that's what passes for intelligent commentary on higher education these days.