Less is More: An Example from Education

I recently read this fascinating article on education in Finland http://fillingmymap.com/2015/04/15/11-ways-finlands-education-system-shows-us-that-less-is-more/. The author is a Fulbright grant winner who spent his time observing how math is taught in Finnish schools and comparing it with the US system. His conclusion is really quite stunning – that Finland’s students out-perform students in most parts of the world primarily because the education system doesn’t believe that more is better. By allowing more mental space, a shortened schedule, and a low pressure environment, schools get better results. On top of that they have built a culture of trust in society by making the teaching profession one of the most prestigious and difficult to enter professions and connecting students with teachers over multiple years.

It is a bit stunning, and flies in the face of everything we hear from the US educational system. I have to admit, however, that just reading it made me feel more relaxed. How much does our culture of “more is better” weigh us down without us even realizing it?

On a related note; I mentioned that the article was written by a Fulbright winner. The Fulbright program is the premier educational exchange program sponsored by the US government. I was thrilled to find out this spring that I was selected for Fulbright’s International Education Administrators grant for this summer. I’ll be spending two weeks in June in Japan studying that country’s higher education system and job market. Take a look at the program overview http://www.cies.org/program/fulbright-international-education-administrators-program-iea. In the future, I’ll be writing more about the experience and all I learn!

The MBTI – It’s Your Type

Are you and Introvert or Extrovert? Do you learn about the world through your senses or intuition? When you make decisions do you objectively weigh the options or go with your gut? Do you prefer things decided and finished or want to keep them open and flexible? Your Myers-Briggs personality type can answer these questions, and more!

Perhaps the most widely recognized and respected personality instrument, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI) can help almost anyone understand themselves and those around them better. Knowing your Myers-Briggs type can help you find a career that is a good match, communicate better with your boss or employees, and even understand the dynamics of your family.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve led three MBTI facilitation sessions for almost 90 people. It is always so much fun to see the light bulbs go on. People suddenly realize why they are incompatible with certain co-workers in group project, why certainly friends and family members leave them feeling drained, and the decision-making style that can help them be confident about their choices.

MBTI sessions are a great fit for retreats and team building sessions. Usually they run between one and two hours and involve taking the actual MBTI test, but also allowing participants to predict their own type before seeing the results. If you’ve never discovered your type or you need an interactive event element for your group or class, consider an MBTI seminar. It can help you understand why you do what you do and why others see the world so differently – and it is just plain fun!

Does College Pay?

So my third “is College Worth It?” myth-buster topic is related to the payback college graduates receive. The current rumor is that college is a bad investment because the payback is not what it used to be. College grads aren’t getting jobs like they used to and their degree doesn’t seem to make any difference.

It is true that college graduates are not getting jobs like they used to, but the reality is that it has very little to do with college. AMERICANS are not getting jobs like they used to, and college-aged graduates are just the most vulnerable group in that larger trend. Underemployment of college grads has definitely risen as the economy seems to be producing less of the kind of jobs new college grads are hoping for.

Even in a less-rewarding market, however, college is still the best ticket for most students. A recent report by the Educational Advisory Board reported that in a recent survey only 32 percent of the public agree that “college is a good investment.” But the same research indicated that the earnings differential (the amount of additional money a college graduate will earn above what a high school graduate would earn) is at 1.8, which is an all-time high. In other words, if the high school graduate earned $1 million over a working lifetime, the average college grad would earn $1.8 million. That’s not a bad payback from pure economics.

That’s just an average, however, and many non-college graduates also earn well. In fact there is a strong demand in the market right now for workers trained in the skilled trades. This demand is growing more accute as recent generations have been told that college is the only path to success, and the trades workforce has aged considerably. But college graduates also enjoy some additional benefits. Importantly, they tend to be more insulated from downturns in the job market. In the recent years of job loss, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school degree has been nearly twice that of college graduates. Technology also favors college grads, who are less likely to be replaced by automation.

But the key to getting the economic benefit is graduation. Data from the Pew Research Center indicates that only about 56 percent of students who start college obtain a degree in six years. As Bloomberg Business week indicates, if you don’t actually finish the degree you lose most of the benefit and you are out both the tuition money and the time you could have otherwise been working.

So while college may still be the right investment, it is important to invest wisely. Students need to make sure they are selecting an institution that really is a right fit and at which their chance of success is high (read: less distraction). And families can plan ahead to make graduation as likely as possible. It has never been easier for students to earn college credit before starting, for example. Dual enrollment, AP courses, and CLEP testing are all easily accessible ways to get a few early credits to help get student a little closer to graduation. Taking a course as a dual-enrolled student is also a good way to get a better sense of the college environment. Students should plan to take full credit load whenever they can, and make the most of winter and spring enrollment options. The longer your college experience extends, the less likely you will finish.

Advanced credits also protect against the other factor that also reduces the value of a college investment – student loan debt. These credits are typically cheaper than regular enrollment, reducing potential debt. To top it off, the best insurance for improving the average earning of college graduates is (drum roll)…an advanced degree. In many ways, a graduate degree has become the new 4-year degree. The shortened time-frame and reduced debt possible through advanced credits can help make both the time-to-degree and the cost of a graduate degree attainable for students who might not otherwise be ready to take on more schooling.

So the bottom line is that college is still the best investment if your goal is a college-grad style job. If so, your focus should be on making a wise investment in an education you can complete and that will set you up for the future.

For a related topic, see my previous post about where to go.


Taming Student Loan Debt

Myth 2: College Debt is an Insurmountable Obstacle

It is all over the news, student loan debt in American has passed the $1 trillion mark and is now even larger than credit card debt. Recent documentaries highlight accounts of students with crushing loan balances of $150,000 or more that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Particularly with the weak job market of the last few years, students and families are questioning whether college is still a good investment. Is education no longer the great equalizer that helps people climb from poverty to prosperity? Is it now a cycle that leads them back to poverty?

It is true that loan debt has risen quickly, along with the price of college tuition. Education is one of the most people-intensive sectors of the economy, and when your primary assets are people, that means skyrocketing health care costs among other things. But recent stories in the media have done the public a great disservice by not clearly defining what they are measuring. The media seldom, if ever, clarifies that as much as 40 percent of that $1 trillion loan debt belongs to graduate students, even though there are far fewer graduate students than undergraduates. (1)

This difference is particularly pronounced when you look at levels of debt. The average student loan debt level for undergraduates is a little over $20,000. That is still a substantial amount of money, but not an unreasonable investment. It represents about $200 a month for 10 years at current federal loan rates. Those huge loan burdens so often quoted in news stories are almost universally attributable to graduate-level loans. (2)

Part of the problem is that the federal aid system that was built to provide access has also retrained our behavior. In previous generations, we saved to pay for college and many students worked their way through, paying as they went. The aid system has made it easier and more convenient just to borrow. I still know students who are paying their way by working, even while they attend full-time, but this is far less common. Borrowing is the norm, and the system makes it quite easy – providing lower interest loans and convenient processes.

This is not always a bad thing. It does provide more access for families for whom college does not even seem like an option, but it also starts students in the pattern of buying things they cannot really afford. This does not do so much damage at the undergraduate level, where federal and state aid are relatively plentiful and the costs are (or can be) lower. But continuing this trend into graduate school – especially in areas like medicine or law – can result in astronomical levels of debt.

The bottom line is that debt does not have to be an insurmountable obstacle. Step one is to start saving as soon as possible. Nobody likes this part. We are all used to living at our current lifestyle, and serious saving means sacrifice, but that is how previous generations did it. There are more options than ever, including a wide variety of 529 and pre-paid tution plans. It may mean that your gift to your kids is college instead of big family vacations, but they will thank you when they are not paying that $200 a month for 10 years.

Step two is to get your student involved in the process. Saving for college is a great exercise for them to learn that you buy what you can afford. If your student works a summer job, have them set aside a certain amount for college costs. You could make them responsible for saving for their textbook costs. This is still a significant cost – The College Board reports the average book costs for students is about $1200 a year. (3) Find a way to give your student a stake in the game.

Start early looking for scholarships. They are out there. Never pay for a scholarship search service, but do use a free service like www.fastweb.com to have potential scholarship opportunities sent to you. Also, check your library or online for scholarships sponsored by local service organizations in your area.

Invest the time and effort to help your student figure out his or her career goals. Many students change their majors in college, sometime multiple times. This can lead to additional semesters and higher costs. Students who progress through the undergraduate years without a career plan also often meander into grad school because they aren’t sure what else to do, also resulting in additional loans. Investing now in career exploration and planning can make a big difference. This blog is full of career tools, and a perfect start is my new book, What’s Your Function? Working it Out with God, which helps readers understand the role of work and figure out what they were born to do.

We’ll explore more ways to get full value out of the college investment in future posts, but again, don’t let debt scare you. If you understand the landscape you can make a plan.

(1)    Delisle, Jason, Policy Brief, “Graduate Student Debt Review,”  New American Education Policy Review Program, March 2014, http://newamerica.net/sites/newamerica.net/files/policydocs/GradStudentDebtReview-Delisle-Final.pdf

(2)    Education Advisory Board State of the Collaborative 2014, Student Success Collaborative Summit, December 4, 2014

(3)   Quick Guide:College Costs, Big Future.com from the College Board,  https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/college-costs/quick-guide-college-costs


Is College Still Worth it?

I recently returned from an annual summit meeting of the Educational Advisory Board (EAB) in Washington, D.C. EAB. is a research and best practice consulting groups that works with hundered of colleges and universities. The EAB staff has been very busy lately because higher education is in a bit of a crisis.

Demographics are bad – there are less students approaching college age over the next few years. At the same time, the college going rate has dropped from about 70% to 66%, and by most measures (including national test scores) the prepartion level of students entering college is steadily declining. Over the last few years, economic factors have made this worse. States continue to cut their funding to public higher education, family incomes have been in decline, and recent college graduates have been reporting unemployment/underemployment rates hovering around 50%.

This has created rumbling of a crisis in confidence for higher education. Last year, Moody’s (a major bond rater) downgraded the entire higher education industry noting its financial constraints. The media has focused a spotlight on low college graduation rates (nationally the average is a little over 40%) and high debt student debt levels (total national student debt just topped $1 trillion). More than any time in recent history, the public is asking, “Is college worth it?”

As many of you know, I have worked in higher education for the last 15 years plus. I still believe it is a great place, and that it provides many students with amazing experiences. At the same time, it clearly has some work to do to adapt to the new demographic, economic, political, and cultural realities. For all of you who might have children or grandchildren getting ready for college (or might be headed there yourself), I thought I should try to give you some inside information that might debunk some myths and help you get the most out of your college planning.

So here goes…

Myth 1. College is Never Affordable

To listen to the news, you’d think that only the top 1% of families are able to afford a college education. While it is true that college costs have continued to rise faster than inflation and incomes, there are still options for how you approach this big investment. The media tends to focus on the astronomical cost of top-end private colleges and research universities. Some of these schools now have total cost overs $60,000 a year. But these are not the places most students attend. In fact, according to EAB, only 3% of the college-going populations attends a college or university that charges more than $45,000 a year. Only 18% choose a college that charges more than $30,000 in tuition. The median sticker prices for colleges nationally is $11,093. That’s still not pocket change, but a full 30% of students (the largest group) choose a college that charges between $6,000 and $10,000 a year, which is an incredibly good investment when we consider the improved earnings potential a college degree typically brings (we’ll look at this more in a future post).

Many of these institutions are regional public universities. Some offer very good quality programs and have worked hard to provide the small class sizes and faculty/student interaction that one used to find only at private liberal arts colleges.

Of course, very few families actually just write a check for the entire tuition. As competition has grown more fierce for students, merit scholarship money has proliferated at such a quick pace that collegese often refer to it as the “scholarship arms race.” In addition, a large segment of the college-going population benefits from federal and state grant and loan programs that can cut the cost even further, or at least making paying more manageable.

Finally, families have more options than ever when it comes to earning credit inexpensively. Community colleges have always been available, but the stigma that used to be attached to starting at a two-year institution has largely evaporated in the wake of the financial crisis. Tuition at many community colleges is typically a fraction of that of four-year institutions. A student working a full-time job during the summer, on breaks, and a few weekends can still about pay for their own tuition. There are also more opportunities than ever before to earn early credit through AP tests, IB courses, CLEP testing (testing out of subjects in which you already have mastery), and dual enrollment in high school and college. It is not unusual to see students bring a semester’s worth of credit, or even more, with them to campus before they even start.

The path to paying for college is more flexible and less limiting than you might think. So don’t believe the hype. Check out your options and begin to put together your plan now.