The Studying Gap – International Edition

I got interested whether the Humanities/Science study divide held up internationally, so I checked out the excellent EUROSTUDENT report. And guess what? It does (with an interesting student employment twist): 

(Sorry about the graph… it’s just huge). 

Here’s what the report concluded:

Humanities students tend to study less and work alongside their studies more frequently

The time a student must or should spend on their studies is also related to the subject studied. The EUROSTUDENT dataset presents an insight into this link by contrasting students from two particular subject areas – engineering and humanities students.

In most countries engineering students follow a learning-intensive and highly structured curriculum which requires higher presence and investment in study time than less structured ones like the curricula for courses in humanities and arts. The higher degree of freedom and more personal studies in the “soft sciences” make it easier for those students who have to earn money to combine study and employment, even if they are formally enrolled as full-time students. In most countries where study-time invested in humanities and arts is lower than for engineering, employment rates are higher for humanities students. 

Although this conclusion can be drawn with regard to most countries displayed in Figure 7.7, there are several exceptions to the rule that in “soft sciences” the study related time is below average and much below the time spent studying by engineering students (top chart) – Romania, Lithuania, Finland, Netherlands, Estonia and Slovakia. Despite these country differences in terms of time spent on working, Romania and Lithuania are the only countries from this group in which humanities and arts students also pursue employment alongside their studies less frequently than their peers in engineering courses (bottom chart, e. g. for Lithuania 38 % vs. 45 %, respectively)

There’s a more readable resolution graph in the report, plus lots of other goodies for anyone looking to escape educational policy provincialism.

It’d be interesting, of course, to see whether the student employment association holds up in the U.S., though given that it’s Friday, I’ll leave that to someone else to do.

The Studying Gap


People, I believe, intuit that the STEM fields are good majors. But I think that’s not just, or even primarily, because of their intrinsic merits. The fact that these programs are hard and the people in them tend to spend a lot of time studying is an important part of the story. By contrast, majoring in “business” sounds very practical-minded to a lot of people. After all, how could a business degree not be more valuable than some nonsense like philosophy? That’s one of the reasons why it’s become the most popular major by far. But business majors aren’t actually doing anything! Not surprisingly, in exchange for doing less work than people in other majors, business majors also learn less.

On the whole, I think Yglesias is right. It’s not a good major/bad major problem as much as a broken set of expectations. If Philosophy is a demanding degree on your campus, your Philosophy majors will be better prepared for the workplace than graduates of a substantially less rigorous professional program. 

Canadian students more in student loan debt than American students


In the U.S., average debt at graduation rose to $25,250 in 2010, according to a Nov. 3 report by the Project on Student Debt. Here in Canada, students were graduating with an average debt of $26,680 according to a 2009 report released by the Millennium Scholarship Foundation. If anything, the Canadian average is higher now.

The numbers seem almost impossible: isn’t tuition ridiculously high in the U.S.?

The explanation that follows won’t be a surprise to readers of this blog — the high tuition sticker prices in America bear little relation to the cost of education. Whereas much of Canadian aid goes to the institutions themselves, most American aid is provided on the other side of the price tag with direct-to-student aid in the form of tax breaks and grants.

This shift in where the discounting is applied has accelerated in the U.S. over the past 10 years, with state’s institutional funding falling away as federal direct-to-student funding has increased, with the odd effect that while the 10 year cost to students is fairly stable for state institutions, the sticker price has increased dramatically.

Part of me thinks there’s a conservative genius at work here in America with the restructuring of student aid — the shift gives the appearance of out of control institutions with runaway spending in deep need of fiscal conservative tough love.

We’ve got problems, sure. But that narrative is not quite right.

Rising College Costs Are Due Largely to Books, Room, and Board, Study Finds

UpdateI just noticed this was a CCAP study. So forget the study —Vedder’s little conservative lobbyist think tank does the sloppiest work around, and I am pretty sure this study is no different. I regret having given it (mistakenly) any publicity at all. 

I do wish the Chronicle would stop publishing CCAP’s press releases though. It occasionally looks like news, which leads to all kinds of confusion.

From The Chronicle:

Despite the widely publicized rising sticker prices on tuition, about two-thirds of the increase in the cost of attending a four-year college from 2000 to 2009 came from nontuition sources, such as books and off-campus room and board, according to a report released on Thursday by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. The average amount that students paid, after subtracting savings from scholarships and grants, increased by nearly $3,000, while net tuition prices grew by only about $1,000 over roughly the same period.

Again, the story most people get on rising college costs is radically simplified. Most people are surprised to hear net college tuition cost for state institutions has barely budged in the past decade (if you take into account increased federal aid, and shifts from direct funding to things like tax breaks).

I’m not saying we don’t have major problems. We do. But it’s important to know precisely what those problems are and what is causing them. I’m not sure how we can solve them otherwise.

Regarding the story above, one of the things I have been thinking about lately is whether a semester long housing experience could be broken up into shifts, and combined with blended instruction. Group A comes up for weeks one and two, is home for weeks 3 and 4. Group B comes up for weeks three and four, is home for weeks one and two. The residential experience is so important to college, but there is, I suspect, some diminishing returns involved over the course of the semester. Why not treat that time on campus as a valuable commodity instead of as a generic experience?

Adding… I think the textbook angle goes without saying — open textbooks is an access issue, full stop, end of story. Time to get this done.

Pinker on Statistical Literacy

Better Angels, indeed:

In a question and answer session on Freakonomics Radio, Pinker was asked what people can do to help society “resist the urge to think things are worse and worse and the world is less and less safe when this is manifestly not the case”.

Pinker’s answer was interesting: “One necessity is greater statistical literacy among the population and especially among journalists.

“People need to think in terms of proportions rather than salient examples, to appreciate orders of magnitude, to distinguish random blips from systematic trends, and to be aware of — and thereby discount — their own cognitive biases.

Pinker is right, of course. Higher education is relatively meaningless if its graduates cannot reply to the quoting of a raw statistic with the simple question “Out of what?”

To not deal with such deficits in understanding is to risk many of the very real and profound gains we have made in the past couple hundred years. The peculiar nature of a democracy is that it’s no use graduating brilliant climatologists if the row of business majors behind them at graduation believe the early snow this year shows it’s all bunk anyways. We’re only as good as the voting public lets us be.

Scholarships Go Disproportionately To White Students

Scholarships Go Disproportionately To White Students

From Yglesias, today:

The issue here isn’t racial discrimination, it’s a symptom of the fact that the incentive structure of American higher education is totally screwy. Schools want to produce two things. One is rich alumni who give them money, and the other is high ratings from US News and World Report. Both goals can be pursued either by investing resources in recruiting better inputs or else by investing resources in doing a better job of teaching. It turns out to be more cost-effective to invest in recruiting better inputs.

Healthcare swallows everything

Healthcare swallows everything

Government spending as a percentage of GDP

This is basically the story all over America:

John Arnold, director of the Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting, said that Medicaid and other health-care expenses are predicted to grow to as much as 40 percent of the state budget by 2015. That will force the state to cut higher education funding because there are few other options, he said.

And that’s just at the state level. Take a look at the chart at the top if you want to know where Pell Grants are going to go…

It’s maybe fun to talk about why costs of college went up, and about whether we are bloated or starved to death. It’s fun to take a stand and say — look, we should just hold out for the money we need to keep things operating this way, there is no problem.

But it’s all pretty irrelevant. I’m about as progressive a person as one gets, and I’ve been in the trenches fighting for change. But the economic dynamics of the coming health care crisis mean we will have to spend less per student in the very near future, period. There’s not a believable scenario where that doesn’t happen. The question is only how fast and what the change looks like.

A while back, the meme that Broadband Swallows Everything was floating around the ed-tech world — I think that’s looking the wrong direction. It’s healthcare and an aging population that’s going to bring state-funded education to its knees in the next 10 years; every other influence is trivial by comparison.

Quantitative Literacy Hits the New York Times Op-Ed Page

Quantitative Literacy Hits the New York Times Op-Ed Page


In math, what we need is “quantitative literacy,” the ability to make quantitative connections whenever life requires (as when we are confronted with conflicting medical test results but need to decide whether to undergo a further procedure) and “mathematical modeling,” the ability to move practically between everyday problems and mathematical formulations (as when we decide whether it is better to buy or lease a new car).

The authors are exactly right, of course. It remains amazing to me that people justify geometry as a core skill because you can use it to measure the size of your lawn(!!) or to cut boards for a table(!!). And Trig is important because the average person can use it to — well, what?

Here’s the sorts of things *I* consider compelling cases for math literacy:

  • You want to ride your moped to work, but wonder if that introduces more risk into your life than you want (you’ve met a lot of broken boned moped riders in your life) — how can you figure that out?
  • You think “Meatless Mondays” sounds like a great way to reduce atmospheric carbon, but you need to evaluate arguments it has no effect.
  • Your child is the age where they normally get their MMR shots. You have to make sense of the MMR “debate”
  • The country is slowly sliding into a catastrophic decade-long recession, and you have to make sense of some basic arguments about job creation, growth, and whether Medicare is “broke”.
  • Your parent is dying, and the doctor is explaining to you the odds and risks of various procedures. You have to help choose one.

The majority of college graduates can do none of these things. The majority of college graduates, in fact, do not understand that the probability of being a person with cancer is greater than the probability of being a smoker that has cancer, or even that most raw numbers mean nothing (24 moped accidents this year in the state! Mopeds are dangerous!). 

And virtually no one understands why a prostate test of at risk men over 50 is more accurate than a test of all men over 40. (For a recent and topical example, see the great mammogram debate). 

Start keeping track of where you encounter numbers, and where they matter to your decision making. I guarantee you that most of the numbers you meet in a day are simple statistics, and what you need to understand them in a background in reading statistics critically. I guarantee you you will hear at least one statistic today that requires analysis.

The algebra people will tell you alegbra is important because you can use it to wire your house(!!).

Hire an electrician. You have more important things to focus on.