Good News, the Undergraduate Perspective and Hope

Thefalloftheberlinwall1989-375One of the joys of working in higher education is the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with 17-24 year olds, with all the hope and possibilities that entails.  At the same time, for those of us who are in mid-life (or beyond) it can be hard to remember that with youth comes a truncated worldview.  Not always in terms of perspectives but certainly in terms of time.  A college “generation” is four years and the time spent on campus is a significant part of the average undergraduate’s life.  This perspective can over weight recent and current events in the lives of students, particularly news that affects our students.  A weak job market for a few years can seemingly threaten to last forever.  A political system that seems gridlocked can appear to freeze political life for decades to come.  Foreign policy challenges on multiple fronts can seem to promise endless threats and danger.

I think it is important for all of us to remember to raise our eyes and take the long view, even in the midst of the busyness of our days.  This thought was prompted by the 25th Anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 2014.  A post-Soviet world is simply part of the lived experience of our students and can seem unremarkable. But, for those of us who lived through the Cold War with the nuclear threat, duck and cover drills and the existential struggle for minds and hearts between capitalist democracy and centrally planned, single party states, the fall of the Berlin Wall is arguably the single most important geopolitical event of our lifetimes.  And it was completely unexpected.  Virtually no one believed the collapse of the Soviet model was possible, to say nothing of the possibility that it could end up in the dustbin of history so quickly and relatively peacefully.  Anyone who says they thought otherwise is either lying or delusional.  The point is simply to remember and remind our students that for the vast majority of the populationthe world is a better place now than it was a generation ago.  Things can and usually do get better over the long run. There is reason for hope.

A few other reasons for hope for the future that maybe do not get enough press:

1.  Racial Attitudes.  Less than 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the United States has elected an African American President twice.  Surely a sign of changed attitudes regardless of one’s politics, attitudes that current undergraduates take for granted.

2.  Education.  Education levels are continuing to grow in the US  and around the world–which has important implications for those educated individuals, their families and their countries.

3.  Standard of living.  The Millenials still can expect to live better than their parents–this version of the American Dream lives.  According to recent research that asks, “…whether adults tend to have higher, size-adjusted incomes than their parents did at the same age, after taking into account increases in the cost of living. The answer is, unambiguously, yes. Fully 84 percent of today’s forty-somethings have higher size-adjusted family incomes than their parents did at the same age.”

4.  World poverty.  Possibly the most inspiring economic news of the last generation is the sharp drop in the number of people living in extreme poverty even as the world population grows.  In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dartmouth economics professor Douglas Irwin notes the sharp decline in poverty among the poorest of the poor.  Here’s an excerpt from, “The Ultimate Global Antipoverty Program” (the full article is available behind a pay wall here):

The World Bank reported on Oct. 9 that the share of the world population living in extreme poverty had fallen to 15% in 2011 from 36% in 1990. Earlier this year, the International Labor Office reported that the number of workers in the world earning less than $1.25 a day has fallen to 375 million in 2013 from 811 million in 1991.

Such stunning news seems to have escaped public notice, but it means something extraordinary: The past 25 years have witnessed the greatest reduction in global poverty in the history of the world.

To what should this be attributed? Official organizations noting the trend have tended to waffle, but let’s be blunt: The credit goes to the spread of capitalism. Over the past few decades, developing countries have embraced economic-policy reforms that have cleared the way for private enterprise.

An American Enterprise Institute blog by economist Mark Perry comments on the op-ed by writing:

I will state, assert and defend the statement that if you love the poor, if you are a good Samaritan, you must stand for the free enterprise system, and you must defend it, not just for ourselves but for people around the world. It is the best anti-poverty measure ever invented.

Perry also includes a graphical description to the phenomenon Irwin describes:


Click to expand

Of course there remain challenges, even in a unified Germany,  but the Martin Luther King quote seems appropriate as we remind ourselves – and our students – that despite any immediate challenges we may face, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” A nice reminder to start the holiday season.

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By |November 17th, 2014|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Benefits and Challenges of Diversity

An interesting new study by economists Sara Ellison and Wallace Mullin explores the impact of gender diversity in the workplace.  The Boston Globe succinctly summarizes the results:

Women, would you rather work only with other women?

Men, are you in a better mood at the office when you’re surrounded by male colleagues?

Yes and yes, according to a recently published study on gender diversity in the workplace. It found employees are happier when they work with people of the same sex. The slightly puzzling flip side? Single-sex workplaces aren’t nearly as productive as those where men and women earn their livings side by side.

While the Globe writer found the results puzzling, they are completely consistent with an earlier study that found benefits of diversity in a very different place–on the soccer pitch.

These results suggest that “having a broad range of viewpoints and experience provides more tools to complete a task, leading to a healthier bottom line, Ellison noted,” even if it can lead to some discomfort for employees.

This empirical analysis is yet another argument for a liberal arts education which emphasizes the benefits of “uncomfortable learning,”  where students are challenged to examine different perspectives, explore news subjects and test alternative world views.  It also provides support for the benefits of diversity on residential campuses as students interact with peers from many different backgrounds, both in and out of the classroom.  Though the research also acknowledges that diversity can create frictions as well.

New undergraduate pedagogies that emphasize group work (which have their impetus in both education theory and the demands of the 21st century workplace) provide students with both the opportunity to see the benefits of diverse viewpoints, but might well ease some of the discomfort reported by the subjects in this study.  Presumably the earlier and more often college students are encouraged (or even forced) to encounter differences, the more likely they will become comfortable with diversity and be better colleagues in the professional world after graduation.

An interesting reflection for those of us at the College of Saint Benedict (all women) and Saint John’s University (all men).  Could our unique (singular?!) model truly be the best of both worlds: the productivity benefits of an academic experience that is gender diverse combined with the happiness benefits of single sex living arrangements?  It’s a thought…

By |November 10th, 2014|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Changing Attitudes Toward Education?

2011.03.a.377When you live in the academic world (or some might say bubble), there is a natural tendency to assume the value of higher education.  Not only is it our daily mission, but academics also have lived their lives in an era where education has been increasingly important to the nation and world, as well as millions of individual students.  There is little consideration given to the idea that this would change in the near future.  But of course our future students and their parents do not necessarily live in this world, and they must make the choice to devote the time and treasure it takes to get a bachelor’s degree or more.

There is some recent evidence that the confident assumption the academy makes about its value might be inaccurate.  The Washington Post reported that a recent PDK/Gallup poll found that, “Most Americans no longer think a college education is ‘very important’ … Amid a national debate about the worth of a college education, a respected annual poll about the education views held by Americans has found that only 44 percent of Americans now believe that getting a college education is ‘very important’ — down from 75 percent four years ago.”  (The complete poll is here.)

Of course this is a single poll for a single year, but the fact that a minority of those surveyed do not find a college degree to be very important and that attitudes seem to have shifted abruptly in a four year window is worrying.

What might account for this result?  I would suggest two possibilities, not mutually exclusive:

1. College costs: student loan hype.

2.  College benefits: underemployment silliness.

On the cost side of the ledger, the press has been filled with articles about the student debt crisis and its impact on students’ post-college lives.  I have written before about the fact that a third of graduates leave college with no debt and that among those that do, the median debt is about $30,000, equivalent to the average car loan.

But the press cannot resist a good, if anecdotal, sob story, finding examples of graduates who have put off marriage or home buying due to student loans. The most recent worry is having student debt follow you into retirement . Some writers have called for civil disobedience in response to the “crisis.”

Despite careful, sober analysis from places like the Brookings Institute  or Forbes noting little change in real debt burdens over time, it is not hard to understand why many students and their families might be looking at college and the associated debt differently than in recent years.  Suddenly the costs of college seem particularly daunting as these hard luck stories become everyday reading.

There are similar stories on the diminished or non-existent benefits of college.  Many recent stories have focused on unemployment – as in Slate and National Review – or underemployment. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York and even our friends in Britain are noting this phenomenon.

Of course the benefits of a college education happen over a career, not just in the first job, and the Federal Reserve study notes, “…while it appears that the labor market has become more challenging for recent college graduates, it is much worse for young people who do not have a college degree.”  But again, for students and families these stories potentially change the college cost/benefit calculation and might account for the changing attitudes toward a higher education.

Such attitudes are likely subject to change, of course, but they are still worrying both at a macro and micro level.  We are a nation whose economic success is predicated on our significant investment in human capital, particularly since the Second World War.  We are not going to return to a blue collar, manufacturing-based economy.  Without continued and even growing investment in higher education our continued prosperity and economic leadership in the world are at risk.

At a micro level, the concern is about who is hurt by these changing attitudes toward education.  It is not the children of college educated poll-takers or reporters or college administrators who might be influenced into taking a pass on college.  It is most likely first generation students, who are disproportionately students of color, who could well believe that the cost/benefit calculus no longer argues in favor of a college education.  This group (and their families) is exactly the demographic that can and does benefit disproportionately from the economic returns to education, boosting first generation graduates from the working class to the middle class and beyond.

If we as a nation care about opportunity and equity for future generations, we should be taking every opportunity to make the case that a college education is “very important.”

By |November 3rd, 2014|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||1 Comment