The Cost of Doing the Wrong Thing

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), an entity that normally restricts its focus to higher education, has issued a report calling for reforming Virginia’s educational system from stem-to-stern, from pre-K to higher ed. The report, “The Cost of Doing Nothing: An Urgent Call to Increase Educational Attainment in the Commonwealth,” is predicated on the common-sense analogy of an educational “pipeline.” As children and youth move through the educational system, each stage builds upon the stage preceding it. Virginia’s colleges and universities cannot remedy deficiencies in educational achievement that occur long before students apply to college.

The report makes a useful contribution to the public policy debate in Virginia by viewing investments in human capital as a “system” rather than as discrete silos such as pre-K, primary education, secondary education, workforce training, and higher education. Unfortunately, the authors reach the all-too-familiar conclusion that the system requires more programs, more initiatives and mo’ money from taxpayers at every juncture.

By way of background, SCHEV has set the goal for Virginia to become the “best educated state” in the country by 2030, achievable if 70% of Virginia’s working-age population holds a postsecondary credential with at least 50% holding an associate degree or higher. By some metrics, Virginia is on track to meet that goal. But, the report warns, “Warning signs are flashing.”

Among the causes for alarm: educational-attainment gaps for minorities and inhabitants of rural areas. If Northern Virginia’s highly educated population were were removed from consideration, the report observes, then the remainder of the Commonwealth would fall below the national average for educational attainment. Concludes the report:

Without meaningful change, Virginia will not become the best-educated state by 2030 (or any other year). Given current trends, policies, and lack of action, some have proclaimed, astutely, “We can’t get there from here.” This is an unacceptable outcome.

Steve Haner has addressed the glass-half-empty tone of the report in an earlier post, making the points that “Virginia is not doing nothing and to imply so is an insult to a vast group of dedicated people,” and that the biggest barrier between the average Virginian and a state-university degree is “skyrocketing cost and crushing debt.”

I think those are fair criticisms, and I would add two more: (1) the  goal of making Virginia the best-educated state in the country may be counter-productive by feeding the destructive phenomenon of credential inflation, and (2) the “educational pipeline” literally starts at home where parents interact with infants in positive or negative ways that profoundly influence the child’s ability later to learn in school. It is highly debatable whether tinkering with the educational system can remedy the deficiencies in child rearing that precede pre-K.

Credential inflation

Speaking broadly, there clearly is a relationship between education and economic prosperity. Individuals with advanced degrees tend to be more economically productive than individuals who drop out of high school. Nations with the highest incomes are largely synonymous with nations with the highest rates of educational attainment. But the correlation between education and prosperity is not a perfect one. After a certain point, increased investment in education may suffer from diminishing returns. Indeed, the United States may well have passed the optimum level.

To state as a general rule that education contributes to economic productivity overlooks the reality that not all degrees and credentials are created equal. A degree in engineering and nursing provides a set of skills that have more economic value than, say, degrees in Medieval European history, feminist literary theory, or ancient Slavic languages. That’s not to say that there isn’t value to learning to think and communicate clearly — a supposed benefit of studying the liberal arts — but there is ample grounds to question the extent to which such learning actually takes place in higher education today.

Moreover, many college graduates cannot find a use for their degrees. As Stephen Moret, CEO of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, has pointed out, a significant percentage of college grads are under-employed — they work in jobs that don’t require a college degree.

Now comes a Harvard Business School report that argues that degree inflation — “the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one” — is making the labor market more inefficient. Summarizes the report, “Dismissed by Degrees: How degree inflation is undermining U.S. competitiveness and hurting America’s middle class“:

Postings for many jobs traditionally viewed as middle-skills jobs (those that require employees with more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree) in the United States now stipulate a college degree as a minimum education requirement, while only a third of the adult population possesses this credential.

This phenomenon hampers companies from finding the talent they need to grow and prosper and hinders Americans from accessing jobs that provide the basis for a decent standard of living. In an analysis of more than 26 million job postings, we found that…  67% of production supervisor job postings asked for a college degree, while only 16% of employed production supervisors had one. Our analysis indicates that more than 6 million jobs are currently at risk of degree inflation. …

Our survey indicates that most employers incur substantial, often hidden, costs by inflation degree requirements, while enjoying few of the benefits they were seeking. …

Degree inflation particularly hurts populations with college graduation rates lower than the national average, such as Blacks and Hispanics, age 25 years and older.

Employers don’t benefit from credential inflation. Employees don’t benefit from credential inflation; indeed the cost of acquiring a college degree requires a minimum of a four-year commitment in time and $100,000 or more in tuition, fees, room, and board. But one group does benefit from degree inflation: the colleges, universities and other institutions that confer the degrees. Higher-ed is a special interest like any other, and it should surprise no one that Virginia’s higher-ed establishment supports a goal — making Virginia the best-educated state in the country — that justifies higher-ed’s ever-growing claim on state resources.

Pre-K programs

Here are the SCHEV report recommendations for addressing the beginning of the student pipeline, Pre-K-12:

  • Establish a more integrated and purposeful P‐20 system. Create a
    “continuity of experience” from birth, especially for at‐risk children. Fund programs for children that require mentorship throughout childhood.
  • Create a plan and budget for ensuring high quality, statewide Pre‐K.
    Ensure affordable access to quality early‐educator coursework and
    credentialing from high school to baccalaureate degree, in a stackable sequence. Explore and support alternative pathways for early educators to acquire competencies and skills, including coaching and apprenticeships.
  • Encourage school districts to collaborate and partner with local non‐
    profits and higher‐ed institutions to expand Pre‐K education and child care and to offer after‐school programs.
  • Focus on STEM, and especially the Computer Science SOLs, earlier and more rapidly in the educational process.
  • Address issues of teacher pay and retention. Invest more in shop/trades/technical curricula and marketing to students. Focus on credential attainment while still in high school. Encourage
    members of the business community to visit middle and high schools regularly.

(The report does not define what a P-20 system is. Google defines it as a longitudinal data systems of state-level educational databases designed to capture, analyze, and use student data from preschool to high school, college, and the workforce.

There are some worthy ideas in here — I’m all in favor of data-driven policy — but these recommendations amount to a wish list with no sense of cost or social return on investment of scarce tax dollars. Particularly problematic is increased investment in pre-K. The evidence in favor of pre-K programs is, to be generous, conflicting. The most authoritative data suggests that intensive (and expensive) pre-K programs can improve the educational performance of poor children for several years, but that the effect fades with time.

The germ of insight in the report is that closing the education gap between advantaged and disadvantaged groups must start at the earliest stages of a child’s life. The sticky wicket is that the gap commences before pre-K. It starts at home shortly after childbirth. Poor parents have fewer resources and less time to interact with their infants. Often, their lives are disorganized, marked by the lack of biological fathers, substance abuse, shifting domiciles, and the insecurity of high-crime surroundings. Deep-seated trauma arising from child neglect and abuse create lasting learning problems. The idea that more K-12 programs can reverse the ill effects of a dysfunctional culture of poverty is naive, to say the least. The problems are profound and we, as a society, have no clear idea of how to deal with them. But asking Virginia’s educational system to correct the social pathologies of poverty takes us nowhere.

In sum, there may be a cost do doing nothing, as the SCHEV report suggests. But there is a cost to pursuing futile remedies (K-12 as a palliative for dysfunctional households) and a cost for doing the wrong thing (abetting credential inflation). We need a vigorous debate before making “The Cost of Doing Nothing” a blueprint for public policy and the allocation of taxpayer dollars.

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7 responses to “The Cost of Doing the Wrong Thing

  1. Yeah – I’m NOT in agreement with the one-size fits all ham-handed idea because most kids in Virginia who have educated parents – do well in our schools – we actually rank quite high already in education.

    Now – there are some worries about the current attainment level of well-educated kids relative to the demands of a 21st century economy but that’s a totally different issue than kids of under-educated parents both urban and rural – because those kids often and typically do not have a solid education compared to the kids with well-educated parents do.

    And that’s our problem.

    And it won’t get fixed if we continue to do what we are doing right now even if we add more money to it but we’re doing the same thing.

    Again – I’m NOT opposed to non-public, private-sector approaches to this problem – but first of all those schools would HAVE TO TAKE these lower demographic kids – not the top kids – and then they would have to PROVE they can do a better job with these kids.

    And if they can and do – then funnel taxpayer money to them to do it.

    But I remain a skeptic and suspect that non-public, private schools are all about the kids with better-educated parents – not the ones that truly have problems. No one really wants these kids – and it shows.

  2. Yes, indeed, Jim – “Pre-K” is “post natal.” That’s why I work with an organization conducting home visiting, child health and parental education programs at the youngest ages. It barely scratches the need in Virginia. These are programs in the home, family-centered and intended to empower parents.

    Larry, you might be pleasantly surprised how many private schools have exactly the mission you describe, usually succeeding in spite of the establishment’s hostility. The Catholic schools are heavily into that mission.

  3. I LIKE IT – but I want to see the results of their teaching on low income students – so it can be compared to public school education of the same demographic.

    You don’t have to convince me that more than a few of our public schools don’t perform well for the low-income demographics especially when a majority of the school itself in low-income kids.

    If a School like Anna Julia Cooper can take these kids a do a better job – I’m all for it.

    But we do need to compare on an apples to apples basis on academic results and I support and encourage it. Our public schools (not all of them, but too many) just do not do a good job on low-income kids – partly because they’re trying to teach them like kids of well-educated parents and party because if the entire school is low-income – they’re up against even bigger stuff than individual low-income kids…

    Kids are not dumb by the way – they KNOW when the school they are going to is committed to getting them an education and when the school is going through the motions – the SOL scores tell that tale bor public schools – what metric do we use for Anna Julia Cooper?

  4. So much to comment on.

    Unlike several commenters on this blog, I am a strong advocate of a liberal arts education (one of my primary soap box topics). However, as I have gotten older and, I hope, wiser, I recognize even more that some people are not cut out for college. It is not that those people are less capable, it is just that they are not academically inclined. Their talents and skills lie elsewhere.

    It seems that society is again beginning to recognize the need for such skills. It was a pleasure to see a recent story about Henrico County Schools’ “letter-of-intent signing day”. Patterned after athletes signing letters of intent to attend colleges, this event had students publicly signing employment offers from area businesses. It was featured on many national news outlets.

    The Harvard Business School report cited by Jim irritated me considerably. It points out that the postings for many jobs that require training or education beyond high school, but not a four-year degree, nevertheless stipulate a four-year degree as a minimum requirement. It then goes on to lament that “this phenomenon hampers companies from finding the talent they need to grow and prosper.” I have no sympathy for any company in this situation. No one forced them to set a four-year degree as the minimum requirement! Any constraints they have are ones put on them by their own human resources departments who don’t know how to recruit.

    I am a little puzzled at the comments by several in this blog regarding the importance of the early years in human development. Folks seem to think this is a brand new discovery. In fact, the significance of its first few years on a child’s development has been known for many years. My first major staffing assignment with the Division of Legislative Services, over 40 years ago, was with the Committee on the Needs of Young Children. If you go to the report of that committee, you will discover the same discussion we have been having on this blog recently. As a society, we know what needs to be done to give children a good start in life. We just do not know how to accomplish it for all children.

    I am dismayed by some of the pessimism of some commenters. For example, I disagree emphatically with the following statement: “The idea that more K-12 programs can reverse the ill effects of a dysfunctional culture of poverty is naive, to say the least.” The cycle of poverty needs to be broken somewhere. One of our axioms as a society has been that education is the way to a better life. Certainly, many of the education programs that exist can be improved or the type of program that should be provided can be debated, but I hope that we do not abandon the concept that education is the way for all folks, especially those caught in poverty and dysfunctional families, to get ahead in life.

    • “Folks seem to think this is a brand new discovery. In fact, the significance of its first few years on a child’s development has been known for many years. My first major staffing assignment with the Division of Legislative Services, over 40 years ago.”

      So did I, my mother and most everyone they and I knew and grew around growing up. But ever larger segments of our society have forgotten these basic rules of life or tried to bury them, and/or teach otherwise, as have many earlier generations, including those that failed to shame those who destroyed the future of their our children’s lives, or other people’s children. The values and cultural norms of responsibility and duty to one’s family, and the need for shaming for those violating those norms, instead far to often go out the window in increasing portions of society, irrespective of wealth, education, class, or whatever. And yes, I know all about the teaching of parents how to parent, many of them quite good, many filled with nonsense.

      But Becoming human is an entirely different kind of book. It is a breakthrough book, one that I read to say what its central message is To Me. The authors central message and thrust is far broader – how we developed to become human over the past 400,00 years, and based upon that experience, how every human being now grows up to be a full human being, operating a full capacity, or fails to do so. The results reported in their great complexities are revealed from decades of clinically studies of the most authoritative kind. Very few will read book. Fewer still will work hard enough to begin to understand it. But what it says is dynamite. The neglect and misunderstanding that these sorts of truly great, original, and strange books initially receive is typical. But instead of getting sniffy about it, or ignoring it, we need to learn from, it and thus can explore whole new ways of looking at and solving an overgrowing problem in our society, one has been ignored far too long by far too many people, despite those who been at work at the problem, including some on this blog. Why? Because now we can see the problem in far greater detail, contrast, and specificity. The enemy now can be much better understood. Now we are far better able to attack it, and can far better convince others to do the same .

  5. ” I hope that we do not abandon the concept that education is the way for all folks, especially those caught in poverty and dysfunctional families, to get ahead in life.”

    No, we should not abandon the idea that getting an education is a pathway to getting ahead in life. But that doesn’t mean insisting that everyone is destined for a college education. As you note, people have many different kinds of abilities. Not all lend themselves to college. Indeed, the idea that everyone should attend college in order to live a good life is very much an elitist attitude.

    Also, as a practical matter, we should acknowledge that students progress at a difference pace, that grouping students indiscriminately in classrooms, regardless of aptitude and disabilities, is not a formula for success, and that the cost of schools remedying the deficiencies of the home environment is extremely expensive with no sure payoff.

    In the real world, do we ask middle-class taxpayers, who would surely love to see more money spent on their own children, to pay significantly more for other peoples’ children? Once upon a time, the standard was allocating equal resources to all children. Now “equity” has been re-defined to say that those with greater needs should receive more.

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