college: the basic facts

Having spent a lot of time doing higher education research, I get asked about college all the time. Here are my major talking points.

For high school students:

  • Even though social scientists disagree on why college is correlated with income, the evidence does show that there is a very large difference in life outcomes between college degree earners and everyone else.
  • Don’t worry about which college to go to. Find one that you enjoy and that is affordable. In general, most people will move into jobs where pedigree does not matter.
  • Getting into college: With the exception of the top 40 schools in America – out of 4,000! – most colleges have high acceptance rates, including a lot of good ones.
  • The exception: There are a few careers where pedigree matters a l0t – the law, politics, some the performing and visual arts, and academia. Not a guarantee of success, but specific colleges do substantially boost your chance of success.
  • Major: The big secret of higher education is the difference between STEM majors, business majors, and everyone else. In general I urge people to study what they enjoy because you will get the college degree income boost in any case. But if income is important, focus on STEM or business/econ.

For college students:

  • People sort early into “tracks.” By the first year of college, most people will fall into a “party track” or a serious track. If you have any concern with professional school or completing in a timely fashion, don’t fall into the party track. It is hard to get out of.
  • Performance: The easiest way to do well in college is not to master the lecture notes, it is to study previous tests and papers.
  • Graduate school: Some jobs (e.g., medicine) require a post-graduate credential. Most jobs don’t. If you are wondering if you should go to graduate school, make sure you need the degree first.

For parents:

  • 529s, people. 529s.
  • Cost: With the exception of a few career tracks (e.g., academia), where you go to school doesn’t seem to have a big effect, although people do enjoy college more at small liberal arts institutions. So unless you have a lot of discretionary income, encourage children to go to public university. You’ll save the price of a house.
  • Students typically enroll in academically comparable schools that are close by. So, yes, a few ambitious kids will move cross country for school, but most won’t.

For policy makers:

  • Costs are out of control due to administrative growth and student services. The solution is to relieve colleges of administrative burdens and cut services and administrators.
  • Faculty salaries have been flat.
  • There is a massive increase in part time labor/adjuncts.
  • State support for higher education will never come back. Alternative income sources must be found.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 13, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, fabio

19 Responses

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  1. “Performance: The easiest way to do well in college is not to master the lecture notes, it is to study previous tests and papers.”

    You seem to be endorsing academic dishonesty with this one.



    February 13, 2014 at 1:54 am

  2. Why is it dishonest? This is a serious question. Why is focusing on what the instructor prioritizes via test a bad thing?



    February 13, 2014 at 2:32 am

  3. I might have mentioned learning.


    Philip N. Cohen

    February 13, 2014 at 3:29 am

  4. Come on, Fabio. Those previous tests and papers are in fraternity and sorority archives. I know you know that. The easiest way to get high grades is to cheat. The second easiest way is to focus narrowly on studying for the test or using someone else’s paper and research as a close template for your own. Another strategy you left out is argue every single grade because over the long haul you will raise your GPA that way.

    If that isn’t what you meant, you might (as Phil mentioned) have said something about strategies for learning, or at least have described a constructive way for using old tests and papers besides copying from them. You cannot possibly believe that isn’t the most likely scenario for students who have access to such materials.



    February 13, 2014 at 4:07 am

  5. Hi, olderwoman. In science and math courses at the university I attended as an undergrad, it was not uncommon for the professors to post past exams as examples available to all students to help them study. Of course, this meant that those professors had to constantly design new exams.

    As for papers, it seems that students – perhaps, thanks to an increased emphasis on pre-college multiple choice testing over other forms of learning and assessment – have less sense of what a paper should or could look like. Because of this, rather than providing an exemplar (which might overly constrain writing and analysis), I give specific directions in the form of a checklist to my students, both undergrad and grad, to help them understand what elements go into papers. While some might chafe at this, it minimizes unpleasant surprises of “why didn’t student X cover this?” during grading and comment time.



    February 13, 2014 at 4:25 am

  6. Ow: science programs keep old tests. So do grad programs for comps and quals. There is nothing nefarious in my comment.

    I was not in a fraternity so I must take your word for it.

    But practicing tests got me through my courses. It’s tried and true.



    February 13, 2014 at 5:19 am

  7. Ow: some of my worst course grades came from trying to fish out the essence of the material hundreds of pages of notes. I shoukd have just looked at tests because they represent what the instructor thinks is important.

    If a student can master all the tests I have thrown at previous students, they have earned a good grade from me. No joke.



    February 13, 2014 at 5:22 am

  8. Katherine (and also Fabio): Yes, I agree that good instructors help to guide students and that looking at old exams and exemplar papers helps. But that isn’t what Fabio said. He said “easiest way” and implied that lecture notes should be ignored. Trust me, the easiest way is dishonesty and there is nothing in Fabio’s list to run counter to many students’ idea that grades are what matters, not learning, and that a grade is a grade no matter how you got it.

    I also agree that many instructors make exams and papers available precisely to even the playing field for students who are not in fraternities and sororities and in doing so are aware that they have to pay attention to the recycling problem when they do this. Again, not what Fabio said.

    I don’t disagree that having access to old exams and papers makes it easier to get a higher grade. That’s why they get accumulated by fraternities. I also think it is naive to imagine that people are not studying for your tests based on your old tests, and agree that seeing what a paper looks like helps students to write a paper.

    But if you are fantasizing that intentional academic dishonesty is irrelevant on your campus, you are putting your head in the sand and making the situation worse.

    I had a written assignment that used to work great for learning until there were so many copies of it circulating and the proportion that were just recycled became so obvious that I really knew I could not ignore it and had to switch to a less desirable way of assessing learning.



    February 13, 2014 at 5:27 am

  9. Was writing my comment while Fabio was posting. I don’t disagree. I just think the lesson as stated feeds into cheating among some students.



    February 13, 2014 at 5:29 am

  10. I don’t care much about the difference between students who want the “easiest way” to get a good grade and students who cheat. They’re both wasting everyone’s time. I’ll bust the cheaters because I can, not because what they’re doing is so much worse.


    Philip N. Cohen

    February 13, 2014 at 5:40 am

  11. If the grading captures learning – then why not take the easiest way to get a good grade? Because that will imply learning. If grading doesn’t capture learning, why grade?



    February 13, 2014 at 7:52 am

  12. Wow, the sanctimony is thick here!



    February 13, 2014 at 7:54 am

  13. Fabio says: “If a student can master all the tests I have thrown at previous students, they have earned a good grade from me. No joke.”

    I like this idea, actually. But wouldn’t the best use of the lectures then be to teach them explicitly how to master those tests? Couldn’t you just spend class time going through old tests? If you couldn’t, then what it is the lectures are providing? And can that really not be captured in your notes?



    February 13, 2014 at 12:40 pm

  14. Hey Pancakes: not all sociology students are in it for the love of learning. Fine. But if my career goal was to help people make more money, I would’ve chosen something else to do.


    Philip N. Cohen

    February 13, 2014 at 12:58 pm

  15. Wow, the whole “use old tests to study” struck me as the least controversial aspect. Go figure.



    February 13, 2014 at 4:34 pm

  16. Here, a university itself facilitates the acquisition of old exams:

    I personally don’t find it a very controversial practise. What really struck me about this post was how ‘American’ issues with costs are. Everything else seems somewhat applicable to the system where I am located (Canada) .



    February 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm

  17. OK Fabio, you’ve got it, I’ll gripe about two other issues.

    First, I think you’re missing a big thing in state vs liberal schools which is that the drop out rates are much higher at state schools. It doesn’t take a genius to see why people are more likely to graduate at schools that have shopping periods than those that have waitlists. That’s not to say you should always go to liberal arts, but there is a trade-off and it may have to do with personality. (eg, bookish self-motivated and somewhat precocious people like Fabio and myself both did well in college at big state schools).

    Second, on the out of control administrative growth, I’m skeptical that this is imposed on schools by policymakers so much as imposed on the school by its own stakeholders (including the faculty). Now I don’t think the faculty are crying out for more administrators in the abstract, but they do cry out for the university to have effective grant administration or to show its commitment to X, especially following a scandal that makes the university look bad with regards to X. For instance when the Harvard faculty revolted against Summers the main practical upshot was a bunch of new administrative programs relating to gender and green issues. Now, I honestly don’t know what percentage of administrative bloat is oriented towards what we can generically call CSR type issues (or an even more difficult question, what percentage of administrative bloat — whether CSR-esque or more prosaic concerns like grant administration — comes in reaction to demands from the faculty). However I find it interesting that (a) we always speak vaguely of administrators and (b) many of the same faculty who complain about administrative bloat would oppose laying off, for instance, people whose job function seems to be flying in consultants to give diversity training lunch talks (which btw is probably useless). It may very well be worth tackling administrative bloat, but my point is that to the extent that this is driven by demands from the university’s own stakeholders and not compliance with regulations from outside the university, any attempt by policymakers (including political appointees to regents) to fight administrative bloat would read as an attack on academic self-governance.There’s only so much that policymakers can do to relax administrative compliance costs for the university (*cough*IRB*cough*) before you start talking “meddling by politicians contrary to academic self-governance.”



    February 13, 2014 at 7:46 pm

  18. Several things:
    1) I was lucky enough to read a pre-publication copy of Chambliss’s “How College Works.” I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in these sorts of ideas.

    2) Your mention of the fact that most colleges have high acceptance rates does conflate the community college sector with the 4-year sector. Anyone who graduates high school or gets a GED can go to college, and (as many of my students tell me) community college is often the right answer. However, community college can also waylay students and cool out their ambition. In the 4-year sector, high acceptance rates don’t mean universal acceptance rates–so high school students should still be sure to do their homework.

    3) Your advise about how to get good grades in college is heavily context-specific. Studying previous tests and papers won’t get you As in courses in which the majority of the grade comes from frequent, small writing assignments based on readings or in courses using a flipped classroom modality. At colleges with small classes, often the best way to do well in college is to have consistent classroom attendance, make sure the professor knows who you are, visit office hours, and turn in ALL OF THE WORK.



    February 13, 2014 at 8:25 pm

  19. I am still surprised that it is not taken for granted, that the grading should reflect learning. As long as it does that, it’s of course fine if old tests can be used to get good grades- because then people will have learned. This is lesson 1.01: Align activities, grades and learning objectives. If you don’t think looking at old tests will help in your particular class: Create tests where old tests aren’t going to help students pass. It’s really not very complicated.



    February 13, 2014 at 9:46 pm

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