Our PS427 class has been discussing state support for higher education as a policy problem for the last few weeks. Higher ed is a major part of Wisconsin's budget, as it is for virtually all states. But costs rise faster than states have been willing to fund, so tuition rises faster than inflation and states contribute proportionately less and less to university budgets (17.5% at Madison now.) And yet "customers" line up for universities, both relatively inexpensive state schools and super expensive private elites. One obvious solution is to get the government out and let the market determine tuition and university finances. Yet the reluctance to see UW-Madison gain even partial independence from the state shows that lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, are very reluctant to give up government run higher education. Apparently both parties still see some public purpose to be served in state-sponsored higher education.
And so our class has spent time looking at alternative higher education models--- recently focusing on 3 year degree programs and online classes as alternatives to the traditional four-year residential model (with summers off). Many policy makers in white papers propose 3 year and online solutions, but interestingly very few students in this class want a three year program. My read (not necessarily their's) is that the economic advantages of a three year program don't match the social and personal advantages of four years in college (plus some summers for travel or internships.)
Last week we spent some time on a New York Times article on the costs of law school and the recent drop in legal jobs. (That article is here.)
This round we look at other graduate degrees. The ROI link above shows that most graduate programs do provide a positive return on investment, though some do not. A wise customer would take that into account in choosing whether or not to attend graduate school.
Political leaders push the role of an educated workforce on business creation and desirable jobs. If so, then states surely have an incentive to promote university graduate programs that provide these workplace advantages. At the same time, potential students should make reasoned calculations about the value of those advanced degrees.
Finally, one might ask why four year bachelor's programs fail to provide the job skills and benefits that currently are only available in graduate programs. Specialization and focus is one answer. General education requirements in most bachelor's programs mean undergraduates take many classes outside their major, indeed the majority of their credits are taken outside their major. At UW, a political science major takes just 30 of 120 total credits in the major, investing only a quarter of their time in the chosen field. Of course one reason for this ratio is that all fields require skills other than their own. Political science students should lean some mathematics, some languages, learn how to write, get a little historical background and perhaps even some science classes to understand politics and society. I'm not arguing those are wasted. Indeed, I argue the contrary-- a bachelor's degree is exactly the place to acquire a range of necessary skills NOT focused only on a single major. But it does mean the depth of education in the major must necessarily be less than in a graduate program devoted solely to a single field. (I'd add that many students have little idea what they want from a college degree and so drift through their four years acquiring credits but not attempting to develop real intellectual capital. That's sad but probably inevitable.)
Graduate programs, in contrast build on the general skills acquired in the undergraduate degree and focus on the specific skills needed in a particular profession. The return on investment data show this is often quite rewarding.
Of course a bright, focused and motivated undergraduate can become super well qualified for the job market in just four years (or less in the case of famous drop-outs such as Bill Gates.) But they do that by taking advantage of the undergraduate years in ways much deeper than most of their classmates. Alas, they remain the exception not the rule.
This second article from the Times today focuses on the MA as the new BA. The opening description of the poorly employed history major makes my point. So many students acquire the degree with no idea why or what it will allow them to do. And then seem surprised when their aimless education has left them with few options. I must say that a similarly aimless masters degree will not help much.
In contrast, it is not uncommon for UW students to start successful businesses while still undergraduates, even in political science. A small percentage, but it happens every year. I celebrate their achievements. We need more. And I am so proud of our grads working on Capitol Hill, the CIA, the military, the Wisconsin legislature, media, businesses and interest groups. Ask any one of them and they will say they had to start at the bottom but that serious devotion to their profession has been key to advancement. Who knew? Hard work matters.
And to close on a lighter note: PhD Comics.