Monday, August 3, 2009

More heroes of a litigious society

According to this BBC article, a woman in the Bronx is suing Monroe College because after getting a bachelor's degree in IT, she can't get a job and she blames the college's deficient career services department for her unemployment.

A) Cry me a f***ing river. B) Why didn't I think of that? C) This girl is my hero.

Colleges lure students in with promises about jobs, and connections, and blah blah blah, but they can rarely deliver on their sales pitches. Let's take a look at a quote from the University of Iowa's placement rates page: "100 percent of the College of Nursing's graduates are typically employed within six months of graduation." I'm not sure how to interpret this sentence. Does it mean that most graduates TYPICALLY get employed within six months of graduation, or does it mean that 100% of graduates ARE employed six months after graduation? You see the number 100% and think, wow, what a great school, but the word "typically" is sufficiently vague such that the real placement rate could be just about anything.

I'm curious to know more about this specific case with Monroe College: Was she a good student? Did she put in a tremendous amount of effort to get a job? Exactly what was promised by career services? And was the career services office at Monroe lazy and incompetent, or were they malicious and counterproductive? My own experiences with career services offices have been extremely unfavorable, so I wouldn't be surprised if the people at Monroe told her politely to go eff off once her tuition check cleared.

So will she win the case? Probably not. Is she justified in suing? My gut says yes. Colleges have become de facto trade schools, and most students are only there for the job training and alumni connections (and the beer pong, natch). Colleges do nothing to dispel this image, so they need to be more accountable when their graduates can't get jobs. If career services does not exist to get jobs for students, they should change the name of the department to "Office that organizes a bunch of garbage seminars you're forced to go to but which yield no benefits other than free stale bagels".


  1. Do you really think she's justified in suing? Do you think that she would have been better off on the job market with just a HS diploma?

    It seems to me that colleges try very hard to dispel the image that they are mere trade schools. The whole idea of a liberal arts education is that students are not trained in any particular job skill but rather general analytic abilities and knowledge. Indeed, the liberal arts education has been often attacked for this very reason.

    How can it be that colleges maintain both the image of educators of useless liberal arts and de facto trade schools? More likely, people pick and choose what image to portray colleges in when their complaint requires it. When one complains about not having the requisite skills employers are looking for, colleges are useless institutes of liberal arts. When one complains about not having the requisite connections to employment, colleges are trade schools.

    Colleges are also very careful not to promise employment. Citing statistics of past graduates is no promise of employment. It's the students own fault if she imagines such gaurentees by those statistics. However, colleges do often press the line that having a college degree gives you a better chance for employment with higher pay grades. But that's true, and the existence of unemployed graduates serves as no counterexample to that.

    It's clear that the right way to interpret the University of Iowa's Nursing school placement rates statement is as follows: In typical times (e.g. without economic recessions or the like) 100% of the graduates are employed six months after graduation. That's a perfectly intelligible statement and it gives you a good idea of what placement rates at this program are like. Now you might still complain that what counts as a recessionless year is vague, but vagueness itself is no criticism of a statement. You yourself use many statements containing vague terms in your post. Yet your readers understand what you mean; they don't complain that you could mean anything by your statements.

    Career Services does not exist to get jobs for students. Career Services exists to help students transition from school to a career. This includes information about resumes, interviews, career paths and options, sometimes connections and opportunities, and so on. The student must play the active roll here. It's not as if Career Services exists to spoon feed jobs to idle or passive graduates. If you want placement service, goto a real trade school. A trade school does not have a Career Services office. They have placement services. And even then, placement services do not gaurentee placement.

    This girl sounds to me like exactly what's wrong with the mindset of people these days. She's no hero.

  2. Thank you for reading my blog and taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to my post. I disagree with several points in your post, however.

    1) It's common wisdom that getting a college degree will result in higher earning potential for a person than a high school diploma. I just read a study however (and I apologize that I can't remember where - I'll post the link when I find it), that said that when you take into account how much student loan debt a college grad must take on, the average grad never makes as much money as a similarly employed person with only a high school diploma. So it's not a given that she would not have been better off with only a HS diploma.

    2) I got a liberal arts degree in Art History, so I'm well aware of the stigma that humanities schools must fight (they're useless, archaic, etc.). But all I was saying was that for the vast majority of students, college serves 2 purposes: delayed adolescence and an entree into a job. Anyone who majors in accounting, engineering, IT, finance, etc. is going to trade school. You could make the argument that a person who majors in philosophy with the goal of being a philosophy professor is also going to trade school. That's why I said "de facto trade school" - universities may fight this image as much as they want, but it's appropriate nonetheless. How many universities hire MBAs and other business professionals to run them? Their intent is to be run like a business, and their students treat the experience as though they were clients paying for a service (a lot of professors have been subjected to the "I pay your salary" schpiel from their students) - unfortunate but true.

    3) You are correct - colleges are careful not to promise employment. Example: when Iowa says "typically" graduates get 100% placement. What I contend, however, is that colleges are negligent and misleading in their wording and their vagaries. I know of one school that actively promoted programs to their MBA students that turned out not to exist - they're playing with someone's future, with someone's savings. They're careful not to guarantee anything, but they're also careful to make it look like a degree is a first class ticket to success. When a shoe company tells kids they can run faster and jump higher with a particular brand of shoes, we call that sleazy advertising - why is it different with a college?

    4) I have no idea what a career services professional does if they're not out getting jobs for their students. Making brochures and setting up mock interviews and getting speakers to come to the school is not a full-time job. ANd it all seems only indirectly related to what I believe a career services professional should be doing.

    5) I think you have a misconception that the average student (or maybe just me) is a lazy, entitled, brat who wants the world handed to them. And I don't know the girl in this story, so maybe she is those things - that's why I said I wanted to know what kind of student she was. But I've seen countless students who were smart, hard-working, selfless, creative, and experienced get completely shut out of career opportunities. And speaking from personal experience, when I reached out to a career services professional, I was politely told that they would not assist me. Not just could not, but would not. So yes, I sympathize with this girl, and I think schools should be more accountable for what they tacitly promise.

  3. I enjoy reading your blog, but I don't think praising this girl's frivolous litigation is correct. I don't think that the average student is lazy or entitled. But I think this one is.

    Whoever wrote up this study you speak of must have, as you call it in an earlier post, juked the stats. Let's look at some real stats.

    The first table shows that holders of college degrees and above stand at half the unemployment rate of high school degree holders over the past year. This looks to be pretty good evidence that holding a bachlors gives one a good advantage of finding employment over holding just a high school degree. It does not rule out the possibility that she might have been better off with just a high school degree than a bachelor's; but nobody makes the claim that it's a given (in the sense that it's gaurenteed) that she would be better off with a bachelor's than just a high school degree. The claim is that your chances of being better off with the former are significantly better than your chances of being better off with the latter.

    The second table shows that bachelors degree (only) holders make 1.64 times what high school degree holders make in the middle quartile during the second quarter of '09. It's even slightly worse in the top decile. These are fairly typical numbers if you look at past quarters.

    We can extrapolate. Holders of high school degrees only make, at the median, about $30k per year while holders of bachelors degrees only make, at the median, about $50k per year. Suppose that one racks up $100,000 in student loan debt, including interest over the standard 10 year pay back plan. How long will it take for the median bachelor'ss degree holder to take in equal earnings to the median high school degree holder, assuming they are constantly employed from graduation? Well it will take 5 years for the bachelor's degree holder to make up for the student loan + interest. But the high school diploma holder has a head start on her career. In 4 years, she'll earn $120k. So, that's another 6 years for the bachelor's degree holder to make up for. If careers lasted less than 11 years, then it might be true that the average bachelor's degree holder never makes as much as the average high school degree holder. But that's just not the case.

    Now you might reply that what you said was that the average bachelor's degree holder never makes as much as a similarly employed high school degree holder. Well, what does that mean? Are we comparing the median bachelor's degree holder with the top decile high school degree holder? If we are, we can agree that the statistics bear that statement out. But that doesn't tell us people are better off, career wise, with high school diplomas than bachelor's degrees. Nobody said that having a bachelor's degree gaurentees one to be better off than having just a high school degree. Nobody has such certainty about their futures. The claim is that one's chances for a better career are significantly higher with a bachelor's degree than just a high school degree.

  4. I am not sure what to make of your other responses. You claim that colleges are de facto trade schools because students treat them as such,
    and you admit that universities fight this image. That appears to be a problem with the student's mindset and not the schools themselves then.
    So why are your complaints directed at schools and not students?

    Career services people appear to offer information that you already know. But many graduates aren't as aware as you are -
    how to write resumes, what to do on interviews, what careers there are, career planning, and so on.
    Take a look at some career services office webpages. They appear to basically just offer information and set up career fairs once in a while. Sometimes
    they have connections with internship programs and such. Primarily it's an information oriented service. Admittedly, career services is a pretty useless
    thing for people like you. But that's what it is.

    Perhaps you should set up your own career services office and do the things you believe career services professionals should be doing.

  5. I should also point out that there are many good state schools that do not cost dozens of thousands of dollars a year to attend. One can come out with a degree from such a place without huge loans. So it's not so accurate to say that a college grad must take on such loans that they would never be able to make as much money as someone with just a high school diploma.

  6. Here's the article: "Is a College Degree Worthless?":

  7. Don't you think this author has "juked the stats" to provide seeming evidence for his claim?

    He assumes that Ernie will save at the then current national savings rate of 5% right out of high school. That's quite an assumption. For one, the national savings rate over the past decade has been about 2% - much less than 5% - and that is the national average. The average savings rate of those with just a high school diploma I would imagine to be less than that, especially for one who's recently graduated. If you're going to use statistics like this, you have to be very careful which ones you use. It's easy to "juke the stats," even unintentionally, to make them appear to support your claim when really they don't.

    The author also assumes that the return on investments would stand at 8%. The real average rate of return, when you take in to account taxes and inflation, is nothing close to that. Meanwhile, salaries for Bill and Ernie presumably will account for inflation. This easily negates the Ernie's earlier ability to invest. But that's the hinge of the author's argument here. With certain assumptions in place, Ernie's ability to invest earlier does give him an advantage.

    Lastly, the author assumes that Bill lives a much better standard of living than Ernie. If Bill chooses to pay back his loans faster and live a lifestyle much closer to Ernie in the meanwhile, Bill will overtake Ernie's headstart in a decade.

  8. In regards to your points about the MSN article, I make the following contentions: 1) For the sake of making any comparisons, you must assume that certain conditions are equal. Just because it is unlikely that a person with a HS diploma would save at a 5% rate doesn't mean it would never happen, and for the sake of this article, I think it's permissible.

    2) The average return on an investment in common stocks over 100 years is 12%, much higher than 8%. And I'm not sure I follow what you mean when you say, "This easily negates the Ernie's earlier ability to invest." - inflation would be constant and equal for both, so if one started earning before the other, it would benefit the earlier starter (and even more so if his interest is compounded).

    3) On Bill's salary, and given his outstanding debt, I think it's unlikely he could repay his loans faster, even if he wanted to.

    To your previous posts: "You claim that colleges are de facto trade schools because students treat them as such, and you admit that universities fight this image." <-- I think universities may not want that image, but if they want to be run like businesses (and it's obvious to me that they do) then they must be held accountable for what they promise and what they deliver. College advertisements frequently say things like "Achieve your dreams", "Increase your earning potential", "Succeed in Life" - those are powerful statements that less-savvy viewers may take to heart. If the college doesn't fulfill these promises, I think they're fair game for lawsuits.

    "Admittedly, career services is a pretty useless thing for people like you." I WIN!! But seriously, if career services is useless for some students, then those students should be catered to through other means, or the facility shouldn't exist, since it seems to give off a false illusion of being able to help everyone get employment or at least learn how to get employment. Instead of cutting professors' salaries 12% like we had here in California (the UC System), why don't colleges lay off all their career services staff? They'll be fine, right? Since they know all about getting jobs.

    "So it's not so accurate to say that a college grad must take on such loans that they would never be able to make as much money as someone with just a high school diploma." <-- I misspoke earlier. What I meant to say was that it's not necessarily true that a person will make more money because they got a college degree.

    And I'm not sure I agree with your math in the paragraph beginning with "We can extrapolate." I'm too lazy to make a spreadsheet, but I feel like your assumptions may be wrong.