An Oracle for Higher Education?

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Kansas State University freshman Billy Willson created a kerfuffle last month when he announced that he was dropping out of college.  Lots of students make this decision without attracting much attention beyond that of their families, but social media has created a new world, and Willson made his announcement on Facebook, naturally.

The other thing that drew more attention to Willson than would be typical was that he wrote critically of higher education, calling it a “scam, ” and posted a picture of himself flipping off Kansas State .  As Inside Higher Education reported, Willson posted:

“YOU ARE BEING SCAMMED,” Willson wrote on Facebook. (The wording, grammar and capitalization quoted here are verbatim from Willson’s Facebook post.) “You may not see it today or tomorrow, but you will see it some day. Heck you may have already seen it if you’ve been through college. You are being put thousands into debt to learn things you will never even use. Wasting 4 years of your life to be stuck at a paycheck that grows slower than the rate of inflation. Paying $200 for a $6 textbook. Being taught by teacher’s who have never done what they’re teaching. Average income has increased 5x over the last 40 years while cost of college has increased 18x. You’re spending thousands of dollars to learn information you won’t ever even use just to get a piece of paper.”  He added: “Colleges are REQUIRING people to spend money taking gen. ed. courses to learn about the quadratic formula (and other shit they will never use) when they could be giving classes on MARRIAGE and HOW TO DO YOUR TAXES.”

Other observers thought is was especially significant that Willson reported having a 4.0 GPA.  At the blog American Thinker, under a post entitled, “Higher Education at the Precipice,”  Bay-area blogger Thomas Lifson wrote:

A straight-A student at Kansas State University has boldly proclaimed that the college emperor has no clothes and bidden a public farewell to what he calls a “scam.”  This could be a sign of what lies ahead for the left-wing propagandists who have taken over our colleges and universities. An entirely predictable cataclysm awaits the American higher education sector.  Having jacked up their prices at roughly triple the rate of inflation for at least five decades, college education is no longer affordable without crippling debt for all but the richest families.  The sole justification for spending a quarter of a million dollars on a child’s education at a full-price private school is that a prestige degree is the gateway to upper-middle-class work status.

Lifson concludes by writing, “The marks are wising up.”

What is most interesting in this episode is not the opinions offered by Willson, though his facts about the economic returns from college are simply wrong, and he has only the shallowest understanding of the benefits of a liberal arts education.  But Willson is certainly entitled to his opinions and can make his own decisions about  the relative benefits of starting a t-shirt business, as he intends to do, versus pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

What is striking is that some observers think Willson has made a thoughtful or even bold statement about the benefits and costs of higher education.  Lifson, who lives in near Silicon Valley, seems to think that some classes on coding are all techies really need:

Willson’s own first plan, a t-shirt business, will be only a stepping stone.  But if this angry young man focuses and starts to acquire online education on demand, as is now possible, he can learn every skill he will need.  I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am exposed to numbers of Millennials working in the tech sector.  Some have computer science degrees; others do not.  All are pulling in enviable wages, and all of them are constantly acquiring new skills online.  That is the nature of life today for techies. For this life, an online degree in computer science would be helpful, but a young person like Willson can simply pick up a skill set and get hired without ever paying outrageous tuition.

It is not clear what Lifson suggests for those who do not want to be techies or whether he’d recommend Willson’s path to his own kids.

The reporting from Inside Higher Education is even more perplexing.   Surely there are more important issues facing higher education.

As for Billy Willson, it is possible that he will turn out to be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, but the chances are much higher that he will be seeking some post-secondary education in the next few years as he discovers, either, that a little economics, accounting, marketing and design are useful for his business, or that a t-shirt business does not give him the career opportunities over a lifetime that a college degree does.

By |January 10th, 2017|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

A Timeless Mission for the New Year

The New Year is often a time for resolutions and change.  Individuals make commitments to self-betterment and leaders encourage their followers to bring about positive change.  Pope Francis is no exception to this impulse and had a message for Catholics and others during evening prayers on New Year’s Eve.

The Pope called on the faithful …

…to help young people find purpose in the world, noting the paradox of “a culture that idolizes youth” and yet has made no place for the young.  “We have condemned our young people to have no place in society, because we have slowly pushed them to the margins of public life, forcing them to migrate or to beg for jobs that no longer exist or fail to promise them a future.”

Image Globovision via Flickr

The Pope, of course, has other concerns as well but his emphasis on an explicitly macroeconomic issue is interesting.  While the Pope’s message is certainly meant to be universal, he is likely to be especially concerned about the situation in the EU, where he lives and sees the day to day economic challenges.

The youth unemployment data from the European Union is striking, particularly since economic research suggests that there are significant long-run impacts from unemployment during an individual’s earliest years in the labor market.  The data below are from the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2014 and show the percentages of youth (ages 15-24) unemployed as a share of the total labor force.

France 23.9%
Greece 53.9%
Germany 7.6%
Italy 44.1%
Spain 57.4%
United Kingdom 16.7%
EU 25.1%
USA 14%

With the notable exception of Germany, the percentage of youth that are unemployed (this does not include those in school) is at Great Depression levels across the EU and shockingly above 50% in Spain and Greece.  Furthermore, according to a New York Times article examining this issue specifically for college educated European youth, even “for people 25 to 30, the rates are half to two-thirds as high.”

These data are for all youth, and naturally one would expect that for the college educated, the numbers would look better, but as the Times article cited above notes:

There is no sign that European economies, still barely emerging from recession, are about to generate the jobs necessary to bring those Europeans into the work force soon, perhaps in their lifetimes.  Dozens of interviews with young people around the Continent reveal a creeping realization that the European dream their parents enjoyed is out of reach. It is not that Europe will never recover, but that the era of recession and austerity has persisted for so long that new growth, when it comes, will be enjoyed by the next generation, leaving this one out.

The Pope’s message together with these data reminded me of how blessed we are at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University to have a mission that is all about helping young people find a purpose and meaning for their lives—both economic and spiritual.  And how fortunate we are to have an economic environment that gives our students real possibilities for growth and development and for the “true inclusion” in society that Pope Francis calls for.  Though the comparison is imperfect and the macroeconomics of the US and the EU are not identical, it is notable that the unemployment rate for the college educated in the United States in November 2016 was 2.3%.

In the Times article, a young Spanish woman working in the Netherlands at a menial job slowly comes to understand that “it is a sign of the plight of her generation that simply having a job and a measure of independence makes her one of the lucky ones — never mind homesickness, dashed dreams of a very different career and a gradual acceptance that her life will probably never be the one she expected to live.”

The situation is reversed for our students.

For many students at CSB and SJU and for earlier generations of our alumni, they did and can live lives very different than those they expected–in a positive sense–because of the transformational power of their residential, liberal arts, Catholic and Benedictine experience.  It is a mission that has been central to our institutions since their founding and a mission that will continue to serve us well in 2017 and beyond.

By |January 5th, 2017|Categories: Economics, Higher Education||0 Comments

Student-Athletes: Oxymoron?

The latest news came from Notre Dame.  “NCAA: Notre Dame must vacate wins after academic misconduct.”

According to the NCAA, the trainer was employed by the athletics department from fall 2009 through the spring of 2013 and “partially or wholly completed numerous academic assignments for football student-athletes in numerous courses” from 2011 into 2013. It said she did substantial coursework for two players and gave impermissible help to six others in 18 courses over two academic years. The NCAA said the woman “continued to provide impermissible academic benefits to football student-athletes for a full year after she graduated.”

But the news was only surprising because of the academic excellence of Notre Dame.

A few days later it was Cal State Northridge’s basketball program.

A story from Inside Higher Education this summer argued that there was an “epidemic” of academic fraud, with 15 Division I programs being punished in the last decade, including well-known institutions like Syracuse, the University of North Carolina and Southern Methodist University.

As Ohio University professor of sport administration, David Ridpath, put it:

It’s an epidemic and a problem that will continue until faculty take control of their campuses.  This can be changed, but we simply have to want to do it. This will not stop until we define what we are: professional sports being played in the higher ed space or a co-curricular activity played by students?

It can be enough to put one off Division I sports.

Fortunately at the Division III level the picture is very different.  Sports are part of a holistic education that combines learning inside and outside the classroom.  In D3 there are no scholarships and no big money to be made through television contracts.  Students truly do play “for love of the game” and athletes must perform (on their own) in the classroom or lose their eligibility.

Saint John’s University has a long tradition of recruiting smart athletes who take their academics as seriously as their athletics.  John Gagliardi’s 60 years of football graduates and Jim Smith’s 50 years of basketball graduates are filled with doctors, lawyers, CFO’s, college professors, CEOs and PhDs.  And the same is true among all other sports. A coach recently told me about getting his own healthcare from one of his former athletes.

I was reminded of this long tradition when the 2016 Academic All-Americans were recently announced for football.  There were 24 First-Team Academic All-Americans in football across the country this fall (they are listed below).  Three of them are from Saint John’s.  The only school to match that number was Carnegie Mellon University, the #24 US News ranked research university in the country, which happens to also play D3 sports.  Pretty good company.

On the second team of Academic All-Americans, there were two University of St. Thomas players, but that was it among the MIAC schools, one of the best athletic and academic conferences in the country.

Congratulations to Carter Hanson (also the only D3 Campbell Award finalist and the winner of this year’s Gagliardi Trophy which recognizes excellence in athletics, academics and community service), Lucas Glomb and Jack Pietruszewski.  We are proud to call you Johnnies. Many thanks to you and our coaches for reminding us that college athletics can be about true student-athletes playing a sport at a high level for love and not for money – a thought to bring a little cheer to the holiday season.



Pos.   Name   School   Yr.   Hometown   GPA   Major
QB Gavin Glenn Coe Sr. Adel, Iowa 3.81 Public accounting
WR Brendan Lynch Case Western Sr. Sarver, Pa. 3.45 Chemical engineering
WR Soren Pelz-Walsh Castleton Sr. Dummerston, Vt. 3.99 Physical education
TE Travis Lankerd Olivet Sr. Battle Creek, Mich. 3.95 Insurance & risk mgt.
RB Sam Benger Carnegie Mell. Jr. Hingham, Mass. 3.65 Business admin.
RB Duke DeGaetano Whitworth Sr. Bend, Ore. 3.82 Psychology
OL Cordell Boggs Gettysburg Sr. Taneytown, Md. 3.74 Biochemistry
OL A. DiFranco Albion Sr. Warren, Mich. 3.86 Accounting
OL W. Tyler Reid Carnegie Mell. Sr. Lees Summit, Mo. 3.70 Electrical engineering
OL Kyle Stucker Wabash Sr. Franklin, Ind. 3.82 Rhetoric
OL Elliot Tobin MIT Sr. Minnetonka, Minn. 3.92 Economics
K Alex Potocko Salisbury Jr. Clarksville, Md. 4.00 Physics / mathematics
DL Tim Bahr Concordia-Chic. Sr. Hartland, Wis. 4.00 Secondary ed / math
DL Michael Daniels Augustana (IL) Sr. Geneseo, Ill. 3.99 Accounting & finance
DL Brian Khoury Carnegie Mell. Sr. Davenport, Iowa 3.49 Electrical engineering
DL   Jack Pietruszewski    Saint John’s   Sr.    South St. Paul, Minn.   3.86    Environmental studies
LB Jack Campbell Johns Hopkins Sr. Chagrin Falls, Ohio 3.88 Biology
LB    Carter Hanson    Saint John’s   Sr.   Blue Earth, Minn.   4.00   Global business
LB Andy Warsen Elmhurst Sr. Wyoming, Mich. 4.00 Finance
DB Conlan Aguirre Hardin-Simm. Sr. Abilene, Texas 3.89 Math education
DB Corey Hunsberger Marietta Sr. Washington, Pa. 4.00 Petroleum engineering
DB    Lucas Glomb   Saint John’s   Sr.   Woodbury, Minn.   3.84   Biology (pre-PT)
DB Jack Toner Johns Hopkins Sr. Western Springs, Ill. 3.78 Economics
P Ryan Anderson Olivet Sr. DeWitt, Mich. 4.00 Business admin.
By |December 16th, 2016|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos||0 Comments