Home > Uncategorized > “Return on Investment” Metric Not Gaining Traction Despite Pandemic, High Costs to Attend Post-Secondary Schools. Researchers are Flummoxed! Could it Be That Students Aren’t Motivated by Money?

“Return on Investment” Metric Not Gaining Traction Despite Pandemic, High Costs to Attend Post-Secondary Schools. Researchers are Flummoxed! Could it Be That Students Aren’t Motivated by Money?

December 27, 2020

An article by John Marcus of the Washington Post bemoans the fact that few college students are accessing a trove of data collected by researchers that describes the return on investment of various college majors. For at least a decade conservative and neoliberal think tanks have promoted the notion that post-secondary education is all about job training. This utilitarian approach to schooling has permeated the K-12 schools for generations. When I worked as Superintendent in Maryland from 1987-1997 one of the mantras the State Board and State Superintendent promoted was that a successful K-12 graduate was either “ready for work or ready for college”, a mantra that echoed the Maryland Business Roundtable’s desires for public schools.

That bottom line business-minded approach to defining outcomes resulted in a desire to define public schools based on a “return-on-investment” model that created a link between money spent on schools and “outcomes”. Given the nebulousness of an outcome like “graduation rates”— at that time there were no uniform State graduation requirements– state boards began to devise “report cards” based on “precise” metrics. Some pre-existing objective data was easy to gather: attendance rates for example. And some seemingly precise data like drop-out rates needed to be consistently defined in order to compare districts and schools to each other. But the most important data of all was a way to measure the amount of knowledge a student gained… and, voila— the statistically precise and accurate standardized test was born and universally administered to students. NOW it was possible to “measure” the amount of learning that was occurring in school and by linking that objective and accurate metric to spending it was possible to determine which schools were getting the biggest bang for their buck. With that information in hand, home buyers could locate “the best schools” and businesses seeking a well educated workforce could identify the best locations for their operations. With all of this data, “School quality” could now be reduced to an algorithm that fit on a spread sheet and “consumers” had a basis for making a choice about where they could attend school. The infra-structure for Betsy DeVos voucher plan was in place!

Over time this measurement mania has infected post-secondary schools and with the student debt debate in the forefront politicians and pundits are glomming onto the notion that there should be some kind of cost-benefit analysis applied. Such thinking leads to this kind of consumerist mindset:

College is, after all, a huge investment, with costs consumers often criticize and toward which many have to borrow. If they knew that one major results in higher salaries than others — or that graduates from one university earn more than those with the exact same degree from another — wouldn’t they make the higher-paying choice?

And that mindset, in turn, leads to these kinds of self-evidently wrongheaded conclusions:

An analysis by the Georgetown center using College Scorecard data found that nurses with associate degrees from a community college in California make more than graduates of a dozen master’s degree programs at Harvard University. Electrical and power transmission installers with associate degrees from a community college in West Virginia earn $80,400 in their first year, or more than twice the median income of bachelor’s degree recipients generally. In all, 27% of workers with associate degrees make more than the median salary for their counterparts with bachelor’s degrees.

Earnings vary widely not only by what kind of a degree a student gets, but where. Workers with undergraduate degrees in business administration make as little as $20,000 a year to as much as $100,000 in the first year after college, depending on which institution their degrees are from. Students with master’s degrees in educational administration and supervision from one private college in New York earn more than three times as much as graduates with the same degree from a public university in Georgia.

This just in: people who choose to pursue graduate degrees major in, say, Art History or not likely to look at wage data and decide to switch to studies that prepare them for power transmission installation. And someone who was born and raised in Georgia and wants to pursue a career in public education in Georgia is not going to get paid the same as someone who attends a private college in New York State and works in that state. To think that a spreadsheet analysis illustrating the “return on investment” of some majors or some schools will change the behavior of post-secondary students is misguided.

But then the whole idea that collecting “precise data” on individual schools as a means of promoting “choice” is equally misguided. There are far too many schools in our country where the parents of children of color or children raised in poverty will never be admitted because the cost of housing is prohibitive and there are other schools that serve the parents of children of color or children raised in poverty that will never attract the parents of affluent children. Businessmen should know this, for they make decisions based on that kind of data. An upscale store like Nordstroms is unlikely to locate in a downscale community or neighborhood and you won’t find a Dollar Store in Manhattan though they are plentiful in Rust Belt communities.

All of this data collection does not change the fundamental reality of our K-12 schooling or our post-secondary schooling. Our K-12 schools serving affluent families will always perform better than K-12 schools serving children raised in poverty and college majors that serve as an entry to service jobs will always have a lower return on investment than majors that lead to high-paying private sector jobs.

And here’s one more news flash: the jobs that pay the most don’t always lead to the highest level of well-being… and well-being, unlike salary, is an elusive and subjective metric.

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