College and Student Debt

I saw the graph below in an article on, obviously, college degrees and debt load, at ZeroHedge.

The article is worth a look – the author points out that “a significant percentage of the 48,000 students who enroll in history programs for their undergrad studies literally believe that they eventually will become a history professor. Less than half of those who enroll in history actually graduate with that degree after 6 years. None become history professors, while about 15% become elementary school teachers. The ambitious are undeterred, and ~1900 enroll in a masters program, specializing in an arcane field of history. Roughly 80% graduate with a masters in history after 3 years. Almost none will become history professors.

Rather than torture you by continuing with this exercise, we’ll cut to the chase. Nationwide, about 300 jobs open up each year for history professors at the university level. All will require a PhD and those who dedicated 10 to 12 years of their lives (and have $200,000 in student debt to prove it) will be the candidates for those jobs. The same dynamics apply to the other soft majors.”

I’m pretty sure I was one of those “other soft majors.” Frankly, a crushed vertebra gave me the push I needed to get into a graduate program, and I got back into college employment before I got back into grad school . . . yet I see fewer opportunities in the academy than existed in the 90’s.  I recall one fellow explaining how easy a Ph.D. was – his research, in history, had been handed to him by an old neighbor who had, as a personal obsession, spent his spare time hunting down poems written by Abraham Lincoln.  Some folks luck into easy research, good topics and publications.

In general, we tried to treat our grad students well – working to get them the assistantships that kept them going – qualifying them beautifully for a world that no longer exists.  Employment in the academy is now a game for administrators – and in a world full of adjunct faculty, the number of ranked and tenured faculty is dropping.  I’m pretty sure we were not doing all of our students  favors by getting them assistantships. offers some data on bachelor’s and graduate degrees. 

“Between 1980 and 2017, the share of adults with at least a four-year college degree doubled, from 17 percent to 34 percent. The Great Recession intensified the trend, since people often choose to return to school to burnish their résumé when finding jobs is tough. From 2010 to 2019, the percentage of people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 6 percentage points, to 36 percent, where it sits today.

The more surprising part of the story is that the college degree is declining in status: postgraduate degrees are now where the real action is. The coveted B.A. from all but the most elite schools has become a yawn, a Honda Civic in a Tesla world. It’s not just metaphorical to say that a master’s degree is the new bachelor’s degree: about 13 percent of people aged 25 and older have a master’s, about the same proportion that had a bachelor’s in 1960. Master’s mania began to spread through the higher-education world in the later 1990s, but it picked up steam during the Great Recession, even more than the bachelor’s did. From 2000 to 2012, the number of M.A.s granted annually jumped 63 percent; bachelor’s degrees rose only 45 percent. In 2000, higher-ed institutions granted an already-impressive 457,000 master’s degrees; by last year, the number had grown to 839,000. And while the Ph.D. remains a much rarer prize, its numbers have also been setting records. Some 45,000 new doctoral degrees were awarded in 2000, a number that, by last year, had more than doubled, to 98,000.”

I calculated that it takes a population of 30,000 to create one job for a Ph.D. sociologist.  Years ago, I read how Imperial Japan, strapped for kamikaze pilots, sent draft notices to (among others) sociology and law students.  In a weird way, it makes sense – they had proven they were trainable, and they weren’t on solid career tracks. 

The world needs plumbers, mechanics, machinists, electricians.  Imperial Japan was correct – it takes a rich society to have jobs for Ph.D. sociologists. 


Lowering Academic Expectations

A few weeks back, a request came in for thoughts on grade inflation – basically lowered academic expectations.  Grade inflation is easiest observed in the Spring – high school graduation time.  The more students that share valedictorian status, the greater the statistical improbability.  It is possible to have the Lake Wobegon situation, where everyone is above average – but that is not the way to bet.

We can glance at the ACT scores – Schooldigger  ranks Montana high schools based on their students ACT performance.  It’s worth a glance – Whitefish is rated third in state.  Troy was 99th in 2018, and rose to 88th in 2019.  Lincoln County High School in Eureka was rated 78th in 2018 and went to 96th for 2019.  Libby was 58th in 2018 and 103 in 2019.   119 high schools were ranked. 

The ACT was a test to evaluate a student’s potential for college – now, with all Montana high school students taking it during their junior year, it has morphed beyond the individual student  application into a tool for evaluating each school.  The ratings were an unpleasant surprise when I looked at our high school.  This link shows the ranking data over the decade. In 2013, LCHS was in the top half.  Follow the link.  Look at the data.  I started writing this, and the data led me into a spot I didn’t want to see.

I recall taking placement tests in the fieldhouse at MSU back in 1967.  Sitting on a folding chair, with a chunk of particleboard there was a single memorable statistic shared: “42.8 percent of you will be here next Fall.”  George Bush had definitely not sold the concept of “No Child Left Behind.”  A lot rides on class rank and test scores for college selection . . . yet as I write this, I remember 2 academic full rides that I dismissed because travel costs were too high.  My freshman year travel was carpooling in Grant’s Mercury, with high school classmates, back from the cow college. 

I was pretty shocked in 2010 when I saw that 71.8% of South Dakota high school graduates were going directly to college.  Some of those new freshmen had to be below average.  Still, there are spots where kids learn a lot more in today’s high schools.  Now, high school algebra is often an 8th grade class – I had classmates back in 1967 who had taken algebra as their final math class as sophomores.  Today the kids in 8th grade learn about electron orbital configurations – that was my Junior year. 

We have to look at online education.  I can’t say I hated teaching online, but even large lecture halls gave me a chance to catch students who were having problems – I remember the girl who showed up regularly, took notes, and was flunking the class . . . and a few minutes visiting showed that she was a first-semester freshman from a small rural school and didn’t realize that ANTH 412/512 meant the class was intended for seniors and grad students.  As a teacher, I liked the opportunity to save a student who was off-course.  Online, my best students looked at the grade rubric, finished their work by mid-term, and were gone.  The advice I got to improve the class was to add busywork to keep them through the semester.  Online is a great option for the self-motivated learner who doesn’t need a teacher.

I haven’t kept on topic well.  The moment of reading the LCHS state rankings stays in my mind as I write.