Monday, December 2, 2013

The Higher Ed STEM Myth

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book David and Goliath, he repeats the following common claim: “At a time when students with liberal arts degrees struggle to find jobs, students with STEM degrees are almost assured of good careers.” The only problem with this idea is that it is at best misleading and possibly completely false. Looking at recent labor data and multiple research studies, it appears that at the very moment the Obama administration and most state officials are pushing for a rapid increase in students holding college degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, most jobs in these areas have faced stagnant wages and decreased job opportunities.

According to the article, “The STEM Crisis is a Myth”, “there are more STEM workers than suitable jobs. One study found, for example, that wages for U.S. workers in computer and math fields have largely stagnated since 2000. Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.”  In face of this decrease in STEM-related job opportunities, we are reminded that, “President Obama has called for government and industry to train 10,000 new U.S. engineers every year as well as 100,000 additional STEM teachers by 2020. And until those new recruits enter the workforce, tech companies like Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft are lobbying to boost the number of H-1B visas—temporary immigration permits for skilled workers—from 65,000 per year to as many as 180,000.”  In other words, high-tech companies are pushing for increased access to high-skilled foreign workers in order to drive down labor costs and produce a more competitive labor market.  Meanwhile, government officials are calling for a massive increase in funding to educate people for jobs that do not exist.

One of the major reasons why the government seems to have it all wrong is the way STEM jobs are defined: “According to Commerce, 7.6 million individuals worked in STEM jobs in 2010, or about 5.5 percent of the U.S. workforce. That number includes professional and technical support occupations in the fields of computer science and mathematics, engineering, and life and physical sciences as well as management. The NSF, by contrast, counts 12.4 million science and engineering jobs in the United States, including a number of areas that the Commerce Department excludes, such as health-care workers (4.3 million) and psychologists and social scientists (518,000).”  The first problem is then the US government itself has conflicting ways of defining who is working in a STEM job, and thus the National Science Foundation is able to call for more STEM funding by including in its ranks, healthcare workers, psychologists, and social scientists.  However, if we look at the more traditional understanding of STEM jobs, which is used by the Commerce Department, only 5.5% of all current US jobs fall into this area. 
Not only is the STEM crisis being pushed by bad data and loose definitions, but it is also being fueled by a massive misunderstanding regarding the relationship between college degrees and future employment: “Of the 7.6 million STEM workers counted by the Commerce Department, only 3.3 million possess STEM degrees. Viewed another way, about 15 million U.S. residents hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a STEM discipline, but three-fourths of them—11.4 million—work outside of STEM.” Thus, not only are there limited employment opportunities in the STEM areas, but most of the people with STEM degrees do not work in STEM jobs, and most of the people working in STEM jobs do not have STEM degrees. This mismatch between degrees and jobs means that there is not a pressing need to produce more people with STEM degrees, and non-STEM degree holders often end up being employed in STEM jobs. 
One reason why the STEM labor market is hard to predict and plan for is because of the business and labor practices dominating these areas: “Highly competitive science- and technology-driven industries are volatile, where radical restructurings and boom-and-bust cycles have been the norm for decades. Many STEM jobs today are also targets for outsourcing or replacement by automation.” It turns out that the celebrated jobs in the STEM areas are highly susceptible to downsizing, outsourcing, and boom-and-bust business cycles. 
The unstable nature of STEM jobs is matched by the short-term thinking of many high-tech companies: “In engineering, for instance, your job is no longer linked to a company but to a funded project. Long-term employment with a single company has been replaced by a series of de facto temporary positions that can quickly end when a project ends or the market shifts. To be sure, engineers in the 1950s were sometimes laid off during recessions, but they expected to be hired back when the economy picked up. That rarely happens today. And unlike in decades past, employers seldom offer generous education and training benefits to engineers to keep them current, so out-of-work engineers find they quickly become technologically obsolete.” Like so many other fields and professions, the older model of career employment has been replaced by a new system of just-in-time flexible labor, which in turn, reduces the opportunity for job advancement since companies do not want to invest in workers who have no future with their corporations.
Like the employment practices in higher education, wages in the STEM areas are being pushed down by an over-supply of future workers and an under-supply of new good jobs: “if you apply the Commerce Department’s definition of STEM to the NSF’s annual count of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees, that means about 252,000 STEM graduates emerged in 2009. So even if all the STEM openings were entry-level positions and even if only new STEM bachelor’s holders could compete for them, that still leaves 70,000 graduates unable to get a job in their chosen field. Of course, the pool of U.S. STEM workers is much bigger than that: It includes new STEM master’s and Ph.D. graduates (in 2009, around 80 000 and 25 000, respectively), STEM associate degree graduates (about 40 000), H-1B visa holders (more than 50 000), other immigrants and visa holders with STEM degrees, technical certificate holders, and non-STEM degree recipients looking to find STEM-related work. And then there’s the vast number of STEM degree holders who graduated in previous years or decades.”  If you work at a university and college, this story should be very familiar; in the face of decreased job opportunities, colleges continue to flood the market with new workers, which then functions to drive down wages and create a class of underemployed and unemployed degree-holders.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Protesting, Dissent, and Unionization

November 20th was a perplexing day for some on the UC campuses.  As AFSCME and UAW held a joint strike, many students and media people wanted to know why graduate students would go out on strike to support mostly manual workers.  Of course, the reason for this support was that both unions were protesting against the sense that the UC administration does not respect collective action and collective bargaining.  Moreover, what really scares and confuses many people in power is the sight of seeing both service and professional workers protesting together.

People in power must know that a coalition of organized professional and service workers could be one of the only groups strong enough to stop the neoliberal political economy, and when you throw recent immigrants and indebted students into the mix, a very threatening progressive coalition emerges. Although some may say that the protests and strike were really only about pensions and pay, it is clear that a more fundamental democratic yearning was evident in these actions. Not only do workers and students feel that they do not have a voice at their own institutions, but they also feel alienated by the silent forces of global capitalism and austerity politics.

AFSCME did a very smart thing by working with various student groups to form a diverse coalition of workers, students, and faculty, and while the peaceful demonstrations did not generate much police presence, recent trends suggest that once organized dissent becomes visible and disruptive, it will be countered in a forceful way.  Let us hope that this is the beginning of a more forceful organization of the people who make this university work.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Message for the Regents and President Napolitano

As the UC regents meet this week, it is important to look at some of the major issues facing the University of California system.  One of the topics that has received very little attention is the fact that UC has close to $16 billions of debt, and this may be tolerable with historically low interest rates, but once interest rates increase, two large problems will emerge.  First of all, UC will spend even more money servicing its debt, and second, UC may have to reduce the programs that are dependent on cheap borrowing. 

As debt has gone up, UC has continued to increase the size of classes and reduce the number of teachers.  As the graduate student union’s recent report indicates, the quality of education has gone down, but the rankings of the campuses has continued to escalate.  The major proposed solution to this problem of educational quality is to turn to online courses; however this cure could be much worse than the disease.  Not only do online courses threaten to further reduce instructional quality, but the system has not figured out how to fund the sharing of courses and students among campuses.  For instance, I have asked UCOP officials many times about what happens if most of the UCSB students decide to take their Spanish classes online with UC Irvine. In this situation, will UCSB have to fire its faculty who currently teach Spanish? And who will pay UC Irvine to hire more teachers or graduate students to cover the increased enrollments?  Moreover, how much should UCSB pay UC Irvine to teach UCSB students?  None of these questions have been answered, and instead, the system plans to throw a lot of money around the first few years, and then it will decide how to make he sharing of online courses work.

Another major issue is the deterioration of UC benefits.  Although UC in the past has been able to attract and maintain faculty and workers with relatively low pay because it has offered superior benefits, this is no longer the case.  With major reductions in retiree healthcare and a new pension tier, benefits have been reduced.  Furthermore, the new health plans have discriminated against one campus, UCSB, which does not have its own medical facilities or any hospital that is willing to be part of UC Care.  

UC has also moved many of its investments into alternative assets, but recent research shows that this strategy has backfired.  Due to the high fees associated with private equity and hedge funds, the UC might do better by simply investing in low-cost index funds.  Yet, in the pursuit of high returns, the university has continued to increase its investments in high-risk, high-fee investment vehicles. 

Another major problem is that even though tuition has remained flat for the last two years, very few people have looked at the total cost of a UC education. By pursuing an amenities race, UC, like other universities, has continued to increase the student cost for housing, dining, and services, and these increases fuel student debt.  Moreover, while there have been efforts to reduce the administration at the Office of the President, we continue to see administrative bloat on the campuses. 

Let’s hope that the new UC president has the foresight to address these pressing issues. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Power of 10? How UCSB is being Screwed

The University of California likes to say that one of the things that make it the best public university system in the world is that the system acts as if it is a single system with pooled resources and power.  However, there are often large inequities within the system.  In fact, for several decades, tuition dollars and state funds were distributed in a secret and unfair way. It took a UC-AFT sponsored state audit to help change this system.  Now, tuition dollars are kept on the campuses, and there is an ongoing effort to distribute state funds in a more equitable fashion, yet decades of inequity cannot be easily reversed.

One of the major effects of this long history of secret subsidizations is that the campuses without medical centers have much lower staff and faculty salaries.  Unfortunately, these under-funded campuses are also the campuses with the highest numbers of under-represented minority students.  Adding insult to injury, the new healthcare plans for the UC system discriminate against UCSB, which also has some of the lowest salaries in the system.
Although we should support the UC effort to take advantage of the fact that it has many outstanding medical facilities, we should remember that these institutions have been built out of a secret subsidy, which has disadvantaged campuses like UCSB.  The medical centers and schools have also relied on shared UC resources to finance their debt and construction endeavors. Moreover, while it is not uncommon for medical professors and administrators to make over $300,000 a year, most other UC faculty and staff have seen their salaries stagnate.
Everyone in the system has to embrace a broader understanding of equity and the power of 10.   

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is a College Degree Worth it? The Wrong Debate Continues

There are two dominant views concerning the value of a college degree currently circulating in American culture.  One view is that on average, people with college degrees make much more money over their lifetime than people without degrees.  The other view is that the over-production of college degrees has deflated their value, and we now have taxi drivers and baristas with PhDs.  I have often presented a third view, which is that a value of a college degree should not be equated with future earning power or job prospects, and instead of seeing higher education as a private good, we must see it as a public good.

The first problem with the idea that a college degree means higher earnings is that this correlation can have multiple causes.  We know that on average, students with wealthy parents and more social connections to high-paying jobs graduate from college at a higher rate.  Likewise, SAT scores are highly correlated with the wealth of the parents, and college rankings are highly correlated with SAT scores, and even financial aid is now often linked to SAT scores. The system as a whole thus reinforces class privilege, and so it may be that people who attain college degrees earn more because they start off with more and are given more opportunities and advantages as they move through the education and job systems. 

On the other side of the coin, the over-production of college degrees can be directly related to the under-supply of good jobs.  What we are seeing in many different job markets is that due to the lack of unionization, the increase in automation, and the globalization of labor and consumption, employers are able to depress wages and benefits.  One interesting test case for this theory is in higher education itself where we have witnessed a significant decrease in “good” jobs.  In just a few decades, we have moved from a system where the majority of the teachers had full-time, tenure-track positions to a situation where the majority of the faculty have part-time, non-tenure-track positions.  During this period, enrollments have increased, so we cannot say that there is a decrease in the demand for people with PhDs.  Instead, universities and colleges have decided to de-professionalize the professoriate.  As I have pointed out before, one cause for this problem is that the same institutions that produce the PhD degree do not require a PhD to teach undergraduate students. 

In other fields, this casualization of the labor force has been pushed by the use of technology to reduce compensation.  Due to the Web and the new media economy, professionals in journalism, entertainment, and other services have been replaced by citizens who are willing to work for little or nothing.  This reduction in earnings was once countered by the recognition that workers in a domestic economy must be paid enough to participate in the local consumer economy, but now in a globalized economy, there is always another person willing to consume our products.

What this analysis tells us is that we cannot expect higher education to fix our employment problems since so many of the labor issues are derived from the power of employers to reduce the compensation and benefits of their workers.  Just as the current funding model of higher education is rigged to reinforce class inequality, our failure to protect workers from destructive labor practices functions to enhance economic stratification.  When we throw high student debt into this mix, we see that our entire economic and social system is programmed against the future.    What we need is better labor laws and better employers.  Once all of the income gains stop going to the top 1%, we will see more good jobs, but education alone cannot fix this issue.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Quality of Education Problem

In my book Why Public Higher Education Should be Free, I argue that universities and colleges can only reduce costs and improve quality if they concentrate on their core missions of instruction and pure research.  When schools fail to focus on these basic activities, they end up spending enormous funds on side projects; in other words, when quality education is not the main priority, there is no way to contain costs.  However, the problem remains of how do you define and monitor educational quality?

This question of educational quality became a topic of debate at a recent meeting at Governor Brown’s office.  The objective of this stakeholder’s meeting was to discuss how best to implement Assembly Bill 94, which calls for the UC and CSU to report on the following performance measures:  the four-year graduate rate, the six-year graduation rate, the two-year transfer graduation rate, the number of low-income students, the number of transfer students from community colleges  enrolled, the number of degree completions in the STEM disciplines, the number of course credits accumulated by undergrad students at time of graduation, and the total amount of funds received per undergraduate degree.

At this meeting, I argued that while I applaud the governor’s focus on the state’s university systems, his metrics will be counter-productive if the quality of education is not protected.  For example, to increase graduation rates, the UC can simply increase the size of classes, inflate the credits given to particular classes, and offer more credit for non-UC classes.  Although I do not think we should push for standardized tests to see what students are actually learning in their classes, I do think the state can motivate universities to focus their attention on undergraduate instruction by reporting on the following: percentage of the core budget spent on direct instructional activities, student credit hours generated in courses of less than 26 students, and student credit hours generated in courses taught by full-time faculty (whether tenure-track or not). The universities should also report on the increased costs related to administration on each campus. 

Like President Obama’s recent push for more accountability measures in higher education, the state’s focus on inputs and outputs does not look at what actually happens in the classroom.  What I propose in my book is that higher ed institutions need to monitor the quality of education by using the model of assessment that is presented in the UC lecturer’s contract.  All higher ed teachers should be able to demonstrate that they can communicate their course material in an effective manner, that they have a clear and effective method for assessing student learning, and that they are current in their field. The idea here is not to dismiss the important role of research, but rather, to tie research to teaching and to make sure that minimal standards for instruction are met.