Monday, April 21, 2014

Silly Blather About Master's Degrees

In today's Chronicle of Higher Education is one of the silliest articles I have seen in a while. I would ordinarily pass over stuff that's obviously wrong - if I wrote a blog piece every time I disagreed with someone's views on some internet-available publication, I would have little time for anything else include food and sleep. But this one in particular caught my eye, probably because of its provocative title. You can read it yourself here:
Those Master's-Degree Programs at Elite U.? They're For-Profit
Kevin Carey, Director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, is trying (in broad, sweeping brushstrokes) to equate master's programs at public universities with associates degree programs at the University of Phoenix and others - credentials of dubious worth that generate high debt rates and (he implies, though he has no data to this point) high student loan defaults. The argument is worth unpacking, if only to see where he's gone so horribly wrong.

First, though this tends towards ad hominem territory it is worth noting that Mr. Carey, though he is billed as "an expert" on "higher education issues", has never actually worked for a university as more than an adjunct instructor, nor is there any indication that he has ever run a master's program. The section of his official bio with regards to his career reads thus:
Prior to joining New America, Carey worked as the policy director of Education Sector, and as an analyst at the Education Trust and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Previously, he worked for the Indiana Senate Finance Committee and as Indiana's Assistant State Budget Director. He also teaches education policy at Johns Hopkins University.
Aside from some classroom work (at what level it doesn't say), it's not clear that Mr. Carey has ever worked in the industry he claims to be an expert in. I'm not sure I follow that logic, but what do I know.

Getting to the substance of his argument - Mr. Carey's main claim that public university master's programs are the same as worthless for-profit ventures rests on a number of observations about rising median debt levels among master's-seeking students. Three specific claims he makes:
According to the latest results, the median debt accrued by students completing master’s degrees in 2012 was $57,600, a 31-percent increase from just four years earlier, after adjusting for inflation.
The median debt for master’s degrees in education, for example, grew from $33,910 to $50,879 in four years.
Median debt for people in the broad fields that grant master-of-arts degrees grew from $43,247 to nearly $59,000.
The first red flag here is that I can't tell from these statements whether he is talking about debt accumulated while in graduate school or total debt accumulated by the student. If these numbers represent the latter, they could easily be the result of rising undergraduate debt loads, which we know have been increasing in recent years. Undergrads who go on to get master's degrees - as many have in recent years, trying to get an edge in a weak labor market - carry their debt with them. So Mr. Carey may well be blaming the problem on the wrong source. At the very least, he is guilty of not presenting his data clearly - and when I see an unclear presentation like this, it makes me wonder whether somebody is hiding something.

Moreover, Mr. Carey implies in his article that this debt is problematic because students getting master's degrees either aren't getting jobs, or aren't making enough in those jobs to pay the debt back - a problem that has been documented with respect to many for-profit degrees at lower levels. But in making this claim, Mr. Carey offers no data or information at all. The best he can muster is hyperbole and snark, to whit:
Do you know any recent M.A. graduates with lots of money to burn?
Similar numbers appear in the catch-all category of "other" master’s degrees. Many of these have—just like "office management"—weak ties to established professions.
A one-year master’s program in something like "government" is accountable to no one.
These assertions sound vaguely sinister, but they are at best anecdotal - and at worst, imaginary. They sound like the claims of someone who has not actually bothered to take the time to research the subject he's writing about, but has decided instead to shoot from the hip and hope that writing style and the general assent of his audience to his political leadings will earn him nods of approval. He is, in other words, just like Thomas Friedman and most other op-ed writers: opining on things he knows little about with sweeping generalizations and a touch of attitude.

I don't know the relevant data for graduate programs across the country. I do know much of this information for my own institution, at which I oversee over 60 master's programs. Here are a few relevant observations:

- Half of our graduate students do not borrow any money at all while in graduate school; of those that do, very few run up the kind of debt that Mr. Carey is indicating, and if they did it would be almost entirely in support of living expenses (money that does not go to the university), not tuition.

- Contrary to Mr. Carey's reference to "largely unaccountable terminal master's-degree programs that offer little or no financial aid", many of our master's degrees, especially in STEM fields, do carry significant financial aid support.  My office alone oversees $1.8 million in tuition scholarships for graduate students across all colleges every year, most of them pursuing master's degrees, and I know that other institutions in my state spend far more. And that's not counting institutional support for graduate assistants - we have about 550 of those every year, all of whom get full tuition waivers.

- Most of our graduate programs care deeply about the careers they are preparing their students for, and take the time to track placement rates either in getting jobs or in moving on to PhD programs. Just because these programs aren't accountable to somebody in Washington doesn't mean there's no accountability - poorly-performing programs face a host of sanctions, up to and including being shut down.

- Even in the one area where he might have a point - Master's of Education programs - our enrollment numbers have plummeted, suggesting that the market is working by discouraging students from chasing a degree that may not help them as much as it once did.

In short, Mr. Carey has painted a picture that looks wholly unlike the reality I work with on a daily basis. Perhaps my institution is not the kind of place he meant to pick on - if so, he should say so. But if he expects to be respected by those of us who work in the industry and read the Chronicle, he should take the time to do his homework before coming to class. Perhaps in my next blog post, I should make an argument for government regulation of op-ed authors...

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