The “high cost of higher ed” is in fact not going to college (and in not going to class)

What am I missing

What am I missing?

David Leonhardt asks “Is College Worth It?,” and finds that the pay gap between college grads and people without college is at an all-time high.  Fortunately, he sings one of my favorite songs here too:

[The] public discussion today — for which we in the news media deserve some responsibility — often focuses on the undeniable fact that a bachelor’s degree does not guarantee success. But of course it doesn’t. Nothing guarantees success, especially after 15 years of disappointing economic growth and rising inequality.

When experts and journalists spend so much time talking about the limitations of education, they almost certainly are discouraging some teenagers from going to college and some adults from going back to earn degrees. (Those same experts and journalists are sending their own children to college and often obsessing over which one.) The decision not to attend college for fear that it’s a bad deal is among the most economically irrational decisions anybody could make in 2014.

The much-discussed cost of college doesn’t change this fact. According to a paper by Mr. Autor published Thursday in the journal Science, the true cost of a college degree is about negative $500,000. That’s right: Over the long run, college is cheaper than free. Not going to college will cost you about half a million dollars.

Longtime readers will recall my frustration with the “high cost of higher education” media conversation, mostly because I think it’s dominated by people who are choosing to pay for private, selective educations for their children, not by people who patronize our fine state colleges and universities, which have in fact kept the price of their educations artificially low by shifting a majority of their faculty from tenured or tenure-track positions to adjunct casual labor.  Also, where’s the accountability for school performance by students in these conversations?  Are students with 3.0 averages or higher suffering from unemployment at the same rate as students who didn’t work as hard in college?  We don’t know, because no one ever holds alumni responsible for any part of their achievement (or lack thereof).

This article comes just a week after I submitted my final grades for the two classes I taught in the spring semester, an upper-level course aimed at History and other Liberal Arts majors, and a lower-level survey course.  I think I handed out a record percentage of Ds and Fs in both classes, mostly because a number of my students have apparently decided that coming to class–a requirement in the upper-level course–is entirely optional.  In fact, in addition to the poor attendance records, a number of students also decided that not handing in one (or more) of the major essays was a thing they could do and still pass the class.  My students remain unfailingly polite, even in their emails inquiring as to why they received these low grades.

In sum, grade inflation is not a problem at my university.  I’m a lot more concerned about grade deflation, given that flunking or underperforming in classes is money (borrowed or otherwise) down the drain.

Although I generally do not write about my students unless I’m favorably impressed by them, I’m troubled enough by this that I want to hear from the rest of you.  Is it just me?  Did I have one of those bum semesters that come around once a decade or so, or have some of you noticed the same trends in your classes?  I have always in my 18-year teaching career had an attendance requirement in my upper-division classes, and offer a pretty huge carrot for it (participation is 30% of their final grade!) which can turn into a punitive stick as well.  No one has ever argued with me about the attendance policy.  No one complained about it during the semester.  So why did some students miss around 1/3 of all class meetings and think that was a reasonable strategy for passing a college course?

Three explanations have occurred to me:

  1. I am a bad professor no student wants to work with.
  2. In order to cope with the threat of declining enrollment, Baa Ram U. has admitted students who are in fact not prepared for college learning.  So things like reading the syllabus and seeing (on page 1!) how the final grade will be calculated are just not in their skill sets yet.
  3. To a generation of students who may take online as well as face-to-face classes, actually showing up for face-to-face classes is coming to be seen as an unreasonable expectation.

I am disinclined to go with #1 only, because my enrollment in the upper-division class was actually a lot higher than my colleagues’ numbers in their classes, and it was actually higher than my own recent numbers from 2012 and 2013 in my upper-level classes.  Also, while some students chose not to show up 1/3 of the time, most students were there most of the time.  To be sure, however, I will spend some of my sabbatical next year thinking about my methods and looking for new ways to spark and hold student interest without sacrificing intellectual for entertainment values.

#2 and #3 seem pretty persuasive, but I’d like to hear what the rest of you think and what you’re seeing among your students and in your classes.  What am I missing?

55 thoughts on “The “high cost of higher ed” is in fact not going to college (and in not going to class)

  1. Pingback: Education round-up: the suck it up edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  2. [coming to this conversation late via a link from the grumpies; I was on electronic vacation last week]

    It may well be that I get too much of my information from NPR, but, based on stories I’ve heard there about how retail/other low-wage labor scheduling works these days (schedules are set only for the very short-term, and workers are under considerable pressure to be available at any and and all times: ) and my own observation of student behavior/excuses (which reveals similar patterns to those described above), I’d say that the number of hours students have to work to support themselves (and, yes, lifestyles which may seem a bit fancier than strictly necessary in some cases) and to pay tuition play a big role. Other anecdata include a friend noting that her daughter, who goes to school at the flagship u in another part of the state, has difficulty finding a summer job because employers want to hire people who will be available year ’round (and presumably available the same number of hours whether school is in session or not). The combination of needing to work more hours and those hours being unpredictable (and, quite possibly, the store-level manager having little or no authority to offer students, or those with young children, extra certainty and/or flexibility, because everything is being determined, and monitored, by some algorithm in some computer at hq) means that it’s hard for even the best-intentioned student to avoid missing classes if (s)he needs to keep a job. Or, to put it another way, work is waving a much bigger stick, in the form of a lost job in a difficulty economy, than we professors can.

    Interestingly, Temple University considers students working too many hours enough of a problem that they’ve put in place a program that pays students to work fewer hours (referencing NPR again: ). I’m not sure exactly how Temple is going to enforce that (and/or whether their students will have trouble getting and keeping off-campus jobs), but it does suggest that at least one school recognizes that outside work is becoming a significant part of the problem (in this case, part of a problem that is recognized in the larger societal/policy conversation: slow time to degree).


  3. Good point about how the craptastic job market of the past five and a half years is making things more difficult, esp. for younger/less experienced workers. I hadn’t thought of this–but I’m sure you’re right that some students may figure that it’s better to sacrifice some class and study time in order to have a job at all.

    It’s sad, but as a former scholarship/working student, I understand the logic you outline here completely.


  4. Pingback: The so-called “liberal” academic workplace | Historiann

  5. Pingback: Education round-up: the suck it up edition | Historiann

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