Archive for June, 2013

June 28, 2013

Are climbing college completion rates a good trend?

by Grace

College completion rates continue to climb, as shown by these charts from the Pew Research Center.


Slightly higher rates for the younger population:


For years, the idea has been growing that college is as necessary as high school was 40 years ago. In 2010, 75 percent of Americans said college was very important, compared with just 36 percent in 1978, the report notes.

President Obama has set a goal for the US to lead the world by 2020 in the percentage of young people earning college degrees or postsecondary certificates.

The increases in the Pew report indicate a “rather slow climb” that would need to accelerate to meet the president’s goal, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

While the long-term trend is up, recent increases could be related to the difficulty of finding jobs during the latest recession.

During better economic times, education attainment rates have been more stagnant. It’s possible, Fry says, that rates will tick downward somewhat as the labor market improves.

Maybe lower education attainment rates would be a positive change, since we have too many college graduates chasing too few college-level jobs.


Ann Althouse speculates about the reasons “Young adults are earning college degrees at a record rate.”

Good question. Why? Doing what you’re told? Nothing better to do? Putting off the time when the consequences of your decisions become apparent? High self-esteem leading you to think you’re the exception to the trend? Being part of the trend, going where everyone else is going?

Related:  College graduates are no longer ‘special’ (Cost of College)

June 27, 2013

Lack of jobs may become a problem for the ‘majority of the population’

by Grace

On the topic of sluggish jobs growth, Megan McArdle says our stubborn unemployment problem is rooted in “technology and trade”.

… Global shipping and trade liberalization has made it more practical to manufacture in low wage countries.  Meanwhile, in high wage countries, technology is substituting for labor.  At its peak, General Motors employed 600,000 people to make slightly less than half the cars in the country.  Today it employs 77,000 to produce about 1/5th the cars on the US market.  Even if it regained the market share it has lost to imports, employment in the industry would be way down.

Remember this chart of the hollowed out middle class?


But the lower class is also on shaky ground.
Highly skilled individuals who are motivated and persistent will always find ways to support themselves.  But there is a surplus of workers for middle class jobs McArdle describes as “seated, skilled, steady, decently paid”.  And while large numbers of low-skill jobs continue to be created, these “jobs are, on average, pretty unattractive ones”.  They are generally low statue, and sometimes miserable.  In some cases, our government safety net is a more attractive alternative to these low-end jobs.

The “majority of the population” may be in for a long struggle.

… we are not creating a lot of good new jobs–defined as jobs that are relatively secure, physically tolerable, and decently paid.  People with enough grit and imagination can invent themselves new jobs, but at no time in history has that described the majority of the population.  The alternatives for the rest aren’t very attractive.  And since modern-day America tries hard to keep people from becoming truly desperate, those jobs aren’t being created.

McArdle points out that part of the problem is cultural, with families and communities undergoing massive changes that break with traditional attitudes towards work.  And education is not a solution by itself.

… Until roughly the last five years, it was possible to believe that education would be the solution: send more kids to school, retrain people for new jobs.  But college graduates aren’t finding it so easy to obtain solid employment either.  It’s true that having a college diploma is still much better than not having a college diploma, but that doesn’t mean that by sending more kids to school, we’re actually making the workforce more productive, much less mitigating the problem of economic change; we may just be forcing people to jump over a higher bar to gain access to a shrinking number of jobs….

A stronger safety net does not seem like a good solution.

For starters, it is politically difficult to imagine a really large class of people who simply permanently live off the state.  The safety net is rooted in human instincts about reciprocal exchange.  … They will lose political support if you have one group of people paying taxes, and a different group of people who can expect to live their entire life on the dole.

Such an arrangement would also be socially toxic.  Being out of work is astonishingly bad for your state of mind, your social relations, and even basic skills like math and reading….

 Glenn Reynolds does not think it’s a temporary problem.

There’s a lot of flailing going on, and there has for years been insufficient concern about what all the folks on the left half of the bell curve are going to do with their lives — only now it’s looking like the left 2/3 or maybe 3/4. I’m not sure what to do either. … I do think there’s something structural going on, not just an economic cycle.

June 26, 2013

Quick Links – Contranyms; affirmative action drama continues; boys problems

by Grace

TIL a word that can be its own antonym is called a contranym.

Also referred to as an auto-antonym or Janus word

Some examples from Daily Writing Tips:

  • Bolt: To secure, or to flee
  • Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them
  • Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat
  • Sanction: To approve, or to boycott
  • Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from

Here’s an example from contemporary slang:  …”bitch” can refer to someone who’s domineering or submissive.

* * * * *

‘So the drama over affirmative action continues’.

From the WSJ:

The Supreme Court, in an anticlimax, sidestepped a sweeping ruling on affirmative action Monday, directing lower courts to re-examine whether a race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas at Austin should survive constitutional scrutiny.

Summed up in a Chronicle of Higher Ed headline:

Supreme Court Puts New Pressure on Colleges to Justify Affirmative Action

* * * * *

This might be an iconic photo, emblematic of the “boys problem” in our schools.


These young women are the senior class officers at a local public high school* that held graduation last week.  They look like a fine group of accomplished, motivated students.

* No, this is not an all-girls school.

June 25, 2013

Technological advancements stunt job growth – ‘the great paradox of our era’

by Grace

In contrast to what has occurred during earlier episodes in history, today’s technological advancements are depressing economic growth, according to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

… ­Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and his collaborator and coauthor Andrew McAfee have been arguing for the last year and a half that impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years. Even more ominous for workers, the MIT academics foresee dismal prospects for many types of jobs as these powerful new technologies are increasingly adopted not only in manufacturing, clerical, and retail work but in professions such as law, financial services, education, and medicine.

There is reason to believe today’s creative destruction differs from historical patterns.
We know that “since the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, improvements in technology have changed the nature of work and destroyed some types of jobs in the process”.  But this chart showing the “great decoupling” raises questions about the possibility of a new era with long-term periods of involuntary employment for many.


Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence, according to Brynjolfsson, is a chart that only an economist could love. In economics, productivity—the amount of economic value created for a given unit of input, such as an hour of labor—is a crucial indicator of growth and wealth creation. It is a measure of progress. On the chart Brynjolfsson likes to show, separate lines represent productivity and total employment in the United States. For years after World War II, the two lines closely tracked each other, with increases in jobs corresponding to increases in productivity. The pattern is clear: as businesses generated more value from their workers, the country as a whole became richer, which fueled more economic activity and created even more jobs. Then, beginning in 2000, the lines diverge; productivity continues to rise robustly, but employment suddenly wilts. By 2011, a significant gap appears between the two lines, showing economic growth with no parallel increase in job creation. Brynjolfsson and McAfee call it the “great decoupling.” And Brynjolfsson says he is confident that technology is behind both the healthy growth in productivity and the weak growth in jobs.

Many white-collar jobs have been affected, as ‘“digital versions of human intelligence” are increasingly replacing even those jobs once thought to require people’.

We have seen a “hollowing out” of the middle class.


To be sure, Autor says, computer technologies are changing the types of jobs available, and those changes “are not always for the good.” At least since the 1980s, he says, computers have increasingly taken over such tasks as bookkeeping, clerical work, and repetitive production jobs in manufacturing—all of which typically provided middle-class pay. At the same time, higher-paying jobs requiring creativity and problem-solving skills, often aided by computers, have proliferated. So have low-skill jobs: demand has increased for restaurant workers, janitors, home health aides, and others doing service work that is nearly impossible to automate. The result, says Autor, has been a “polarization” of the workforce and a “hollowing out” of the middle class—something that has been happening in numerous industrialized countries for the last several decades. But “that is very different from saying technology is affecting the total number of jobs,” he adds. “Jobs can change a lot without there being huge changes in employment rates.”…

New technologies are “encroaching into human skills in a way that is completely unprecedented,” McAfee says, and many middle-class jobs are right in the bull’s-eye; even relatively high-skill work in education, medicine, and law is affected. “The middle seems to be going away,” he adds. “The top and bottom are clearly getting farther apart.” While technology might be only one factor, says McAfee, it has been an “underappreciated” one, and it is likely to become increasingly significant.

But ‘no one really knows’.

While questions remain on this issue, no one knows for certain if historic patterns of job creation will be repeated.  Even Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, whose research has shown how technological advances have consistently led to job creation, tells us that ‘we never have run out of jobs, but it is “genuinely a question”’.  Others raise similar doubts.

… “No one really knows,” says Richard Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard University. That’s because it’s very difficult to “extricate” the effects of technology from other macroeconomic effects, he says. But he’s skeptical that technology would change a wide range of business sectors fast enough to explain recent job numbers.

MIT economist David Autor also says “no one knows the cause” for the employment slump.

… The sudden slowdown in job creation “is a big puzzle,” he says, “but there’s not a lot of evidence it’s linked to computers.”

Many of the reasons for sluggish job growth may be rooted in “global trade and the financial crises of the early and late 2000s”.  Government policies may play a role.  But it is possible that recent technological advances have changed the equation in an unprecedented and permanent manner.  Meanwhile, the middle class continues to suffer as politicians, economists, and employers grapple with ‘the great paradox of our era’.


June 24, 2013

Only PAID internships lead to job offers?

by Grace

Is it a myth that most college internships lead to jobs?

According to Jordan Weissmann writing in The Atlantic, it’s only the paid internships that are likely to result in jobs after graduation.  Students who worked at unpaid internships did not seem to receive any advantage in securing job offers, faring only slightly better than students with no internships at all.


Additional details:

  • Among students who found jobs, former unpaid interns were actually offered less money than those with no internship experience.
  • … unpaid interns fared roughly the same or worse on the job market compared to non-interns across a variety of fields, including business, communications, engineering, English, and political science.
  • … paid and unpaid interns had about the same distribution of GPA’s.

Here are some things to consider when looking at the correlation between unpaid internships and fewer job offers.

  • If a company is willing to pay an intern, it might follow that they consider that person a stronger candidate for a full-time job offer.
  • It’s “possible that there are inherent differences between the kinds of students who take unpaid internships and their peers”.  The person who is willing to work for free may be less likely to have the skills and qualities needed for a job offer.
  • The GPA statistics cited are too broad to draw conclusions about competency.  Grade averages are partly a function of major, with science and engineering students typically earning lower grades than those of education and language students.
  • Many of those unpaid internships could be at places that simply do not hire in significant numbers, but rely on unpaid volunteers for much of their work.  These could be non-profit entities such as charities, museums, or political organizations.

Causation not correlation
One take-away is that while internships may figure prominently in enhancing the chances of securing employment after graduation, in many cases it could be more a matter of correlation instead of causation.  Maybe it’s simply the case that the strongest job candidates are likely to get both the best internships and the best jobs.


June 21, 2013

‘teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art’

by Grace

‘teaching kids how to write compelling sentences is a lost art’

That is the observation of Ta-Nehisa Coates, author and blogger for The Atlantic who spent this past semester teaching “Writing and Reading the Essay” at MIT.

The ‘sentence is the basic unit in writing‘.

As Coates suggests, today’s K-12 literacy instruction does not place much importance on sentence composition.  That’s my thought every time I hear parents and educators marvel about how wonderful it is that elementary students are writing “research papers” and personal journals, instead of spending more time mastering foundational literacy skills like sentence composition, grammar, and vocabulary.  These students then have to play catch-up in high school, struggling with writing essays while lacking basic skills that were never taught in the earlier grades.  The most striking example I have seen are local high school juniors in honors English class who spent the first several weeks of the school year reviewing learning basic grammar.

… explicit instruction in sentence syntax had been a staple of composition classes (dating back to classical antiquity) until just a few decades ago.

Francis Christensen and Edward Corbett are two of the few recent advocates of “sentence-based rhetoric”.  Their instructional methods have included “sentence combining” and “imitation exercises”.

Both Corbett’s and Christensen’s methods were subject to empirical scrutiny, and studies showed that both methods not only increased the grammatical complexity of student writing, but also improved the overall writing quality (as compared with control groups and as rated by blind raters). In particular, internalizing syntactic structures, even by slavishly copying them, ultimately increased originality and creativity–presumably by giving students a wide repertoire of syntactic tools to choose from and handy ways to play around with them.

Don and Jenny Killgallon have written a series of books on sentence composing.

Sentence Composing is an approach to teaching improved sentence structure by using respected professional writers as mentors whose sentences become models for students. Using those models as a starting point, the approach uses four sentence manipulating activities–unscrambling, imitating, combining, and expanding–to provide practice in learning from the mentor how to write similar sentences.

The Kilgallon texts work well for afterschooling or homeschooling, with instruction aimed at all levels — ranging from elementary grades to college.

Related:  ‘Writing, writing, writing’ – a skill lacking among too many college graduates (Cost of College)

June 20, 2013

In Sweden, higher college debt levels correspond with higher fertility rates

by Grace

College in Sweden is free, but students still end up with a relatively high average debt of about $19,000.  Along with higher student debt levels than other European countries, Sweden also has higher birthrates.

… And 85% of Swedish students graduate with debt, versus only 50% in the US. Worst of all, new Swedish graduates have the highest debt-to-income ratios of any group of students in the developed world (according to estimates of what they’re expected to earn once they get out of school)—somewhere in the neighborhood of 80%. The US, where we’re constantly being told that student debt is hitting crisis proportions, the average is more like 60%. Why?

Swedish young people become financially independent from their parents at a relatively young age.

… It’s pretty simple, actually. In Sweden, young people are expected to pay for things themselves instead of sponging off their parents….

Swedes, like other Nordic Europeans, have an independent streak. They leave their parental homes earlier than almost all their southern neighbors.

One study found that just 2% of Swedish men lived with their parents after the age of 30. In Spain, a quarter of 30-year-old men still are shacking up with mom and dad; in Italy it was around 32%. sponging off their parents.

Average ages at which grown children left the family home

  • 19.9  Denmark
  • 20.2  Sweden
  • 22.0  Netherlands
  • 22.1  Switzerland
  • 22.1  Israel
  • 22.2  Austria
  • 22.4  France
  • 22.5  Germany
  • 22.7  Ireland
  • 23.2  Czech Republic
  • 23.5  Belgium
  • 23.9  Greece
  • 24.1  Poland
  • 25.2  Spain
  • 26.1  Italy

For purposes of financial aid, Swedish college students are considered responsible for their own support.  This is quite different from Germany and other countries.

 … ideas about youthful independence are embedded in the system Sweden devised to pay for higher education. For example, whereas in the US parents are expected to help pay for the their children’s college education, in Sweden parental income levels are just not part of the equation. Students are viewed as adults, responsible for their own finances. As a result “levels of student support are based on students’ own income, rather than that of their parents,” wrote analysts in a white paper on the system. Compare that to countries like Germany, where any aid from the state agency that doles it out, known as BAföG, is premised on parental income. In the US it’s the same deal. In Sweden, the entire system is aimed at severing the financial link between parents and young adults.

Sweden has one of the highest fertility rates among European countries, perhaps related to the strong sense of independence expressed by young people.

… Some see clear links between young people moving out of parental homes early and taking the necessary steps to become parents themselves. (Anyone who has ever lived with mom and dad into their 20s will understand this intuitively.) “Childbearing in developed countries almost invariably takes place after young adults have left their parental home, and home-leaving constitutes a central correlate of fertility and union formation in Europe and other industrialized countries,” wrote sociologists in this 2006 paper.

June 19, 2013

Quick Links – College students seek mental health assistance; students not prepared for college writing; we need to ‘create education better’

by Grace

Almost 40% of Harvard students seek mental health treatment.

45.1% of females and 30.1% of males have sought mental health assistance while at Harvard, according to the Harvard Class of 2013 Senior Survey

* * * * *

Graduates from low performing D.C high schools:  ‘Students almost universally said writing is a significant challenge when they get to college.’

… Darryl Robinson, a Georgetown student and 2011 graduate of Cesar Chavez, a D.C. charter school, said it was his first college writing assignment that taught him how much he had to learn.

Asked to analyze a memoir, Robinson wrote a simple plot summary. He hadn’t known how to develop an argument and back it up. His paper received a D-minus, as he recalled in an opinion piece he wrote for The Washington Post last year.

“Other Georgetown freshmen from better schools had been trained to form original, concise thoughts within a breath, to focus less on remembering every piece of information,” Robinson wrote. “My former teachers simply did not push me to think past a basic level, to apply concepts, to move beyond memorizing facts and figures.”

* * * * *

America needs to “create education better“, according to the response Miss Utah gave to a question during the Miss USA pageant.

Of course this flub went viral.  Here’s the question Miss Utah was asked.

“A recent report shows that in 40% of American families with children, women are the primary earners, yet they continue to earn less than men,  What does this say about society?”

I agree with Linda Holmes of NPR that this was a “simultaneously (1) dumb and (2) impossible to answer question”.  And it may have had another purpose.

That type of question is meant to weed out the un-PC.

Here’s Miss Utah’s complete answer:

“I think we can relate this back to education and how we are continuing to try to strive to figure out how to create jobs right now,’’ she replied at the pageant. “That’s the biggest problem and I think, especially the men are, um, seen as the leaders of this and so we need to try to figure out how to create education better so that we can solve this problem. Thank you.”

In her second try during an appearance on the Today Show, Miss Utah gave a revised answer.

“This is not OK,’’ she said. “It needs to be equal pay for equal work. It’s hard enough already to earn a living, and it shouldn’t be harder just because you’re a woman.”

Given my views on this touchy subject, I don’t care for either response.  But her second try was certainly a politically correct answer.

June 18, 2013

Are today’s college families buying at the top of the price chart?

by Grace

The economic realignment of education will . . . most likely take place in the next five to ten years.

According to Frank Ryan, the higher education bubble has burst.  If this is true, families with children now in college are buying at the top, just like the unlucky homeowners who bought at the peak of the last housing bubble about five years ago.


Evidence for this pending “collapse of the education systems” includes soaring tuition costs, record student loan debt, escalating loan delinquency rates, declining college enrollment, and Moody’s negative financial outlook for the higher education sector.  There will be winners and losers in the coming years, with “marginally profitable schools, or schools with high debt loads which depend upon taxpayer support”, finding it difficult to survive.

Ryan’s outlook for the next ten years:

First, to stem declining enrollment, tuition will decrease.  Schools will struggle to maintain enrollment and in order to cover their fixed cost will be forced to reduce tuitions to encourage students and enrollment.

Second, faculty tenure and burgeoning cost of academic instruction will come under question and will be changed.  While existing tenured faculty will probably not be affected, the probability of getting tenure for other professors will be significantly more difficult, except at well-funded academic institutions.  Pay will likely decline as well.

Third, entire educational institutions will begin to file bankruptcy.  There has already been a major bankruptcy of a university in Atlanta, Georgia.  Other institutions that are not well-funded will meet the same fate.

Fourth, it is very obvious that academia will be forced to justify its cost relative to the value garnered from the education.  This will be one of the first times in history that the value of education relative to the cost will come under scrutiny.


June 17, 2013

Should you refinance your student loan by using a lower-interest home equity loan?

by Grace

Should I use a home equity loan to refinance my student loans at a lower interest rate?

Rohit Chopra, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Student Loan Ombudsman, looked at the option of using a home equity loan to refinance existing student loans.  This would only apply to homeowners with significant equity, probably someone out of college ten years or more.  The main advantage would seem to be the ability to swap a high-interest student loan for one with today’s enticing low rates.  The window of opportunity for using this strategy may be closing soon, with expectations by some forecasters that an increase of interest rates is on the horizon.

Here are some important considerations.

  • Your rate may be lower, but your home is at risk. Interest rates for home equity loans are generally lower than interest rates for student loans. (Lenders are willing to offer a lower interest rate because they know that if you don’t pay, they have a legal claim on your home.) If you can’t pay, you could end up in foreclosure.
  • On your federal loans, you are giving up repayment options and forgiveness benefits. Federal student loans feature a number of protections for borrowers that run into trouble, including Income-Based Repayment (IBR). These benefits no longer exist when you pay off a federal student loan with a home equity loan.
  • This may impact your taxes. The interest you pay on a home equity loan could equate to a greater tax benefit for some borrowers, when compared to the student loan interest tax deduction, especially if you have high income and itemize deductions. You may wish to consult with a tax advisor when considering your options.

Last year I wrote about this topic from a parent’s perspective, addressing  the question of whether a federal Direct PLUS parent loan or a home equity loan is better for financing a child’s college costs.

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