Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Is Higher Education Worth the Money?


By Jim Wolfston

Promoters of higher education often point to differences in lifetime earnings to justify the price of higher education. Pay for an education today, and the “investment” will pay for itself over the student’s lifetime. Not only will the student make more money, but his or her career will be far more satisfying.

But with the cost of higher education skyrocketing, many families are beginning to question whether a college degree is worth the price. The arithmetic is persuasive. At the stock market’s historical 9% annual return (nominal return over the past 50 years), $100,000 not invested in a four-year college education would be worth over $3 million in 40 years. That return would handsomely eclipse the nominal lifetime earnings difference of $1 million often quoted for college vs. high school graduates. Put aside the fact that the four-year degree is being slowly replaced by the five-year degree, which bumps the cost of higher education even higher.

The new book “Academically Adrift” reveals that college has changed. And because of this change, the historical earnings advantage imparted by a college education may not hold up. By testing students longitudinally using the well-respected Comprehensive Learning Assessment, the authors show that irrespective of institutional quality and prestige, little or no academic skill advancement is now made through a college student’s sophomore year. The authors cite declining rigor in academic pursuit by students as a major factor. Students now put in only half as much time per week studying as college students did four decades ago. And yet, owing to a kind of insidious feedback loop where faculty pay depends in part on student evaluations, grades keep going higher.

Billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal, is one of the skeptics. His foundation is now offering stipends to promising young entrepreneurs encouraging them not to attend college. Critics point out that Mr. Thiel’s own success owes at least in part to the education and connections he formed at Stanford. His formal education includes a bachelor’s degree in philosophy followed by a law degree. Could his critique reflect a lack of self-knowledge?

The simple fact is that nobody can predict exactly how or whether a college education will matter in a person’s life. However, we’re probably safe to predict that the amount of information we will need to absorb, understand, critique, explain and write about will only grow. And we’re also safe to predict that innovation will continue to spring from the unpredicted and disparate combinations of ideas we are capable of drawing upon. Interestingly, these are the hallmarks of a great college education: learning a diversity of ideas and growing the capacity to understand and critique them.

Yes, attending college is now an increasingly risky economic bet. But if you’re going to go for it, make sure you stack the odds in your favor by pouring yourself into your studies aggressively.

Jim Wolfston is the president and founder of CollegeNET Inc.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Swiss Party Makes Dislike of PowerPoint a Political Issue

From PC world

Many people dislike PowerPoint, Microsoft's ubiquitous application for creating business presentations, but few would take a political stand over it. However, that's exactly what Switzerland's Anti-PowerPoint Party (APPP) seeks to do -- along with making a bit of money.

According to the APPP, the use of presentation software costs the Swiss economy 2.1 billion Swiss francs (US$2.5 billion) annually, while across the whole of Europe, presentation software causes an economic loss of €110 billion (US$160 billion). APPP bases its calculations on unverified assumptions about the number of employees attending presentations each week, and supposes that 85 percent of those employees see no purpose in the presentations.

Switzerland's democratic system is famously participative, with citizens able to call for a nationwide referendum on almost any subject if they can obtain the signatures of 100,000 voters. The APPP is seeking support for a national referendum to ban the use of PowerPoint and other presentation software in presentations throughout Switzerland. It also plans to present candidates for national elections in October.

The party's ambitions don't stop there: Its website is published in three of Switzerland's official languages, German, French and Italian, with parts of it also available in Croatian, English, Russian, Slovak and Spanish.

"We want the world to take note of this cause. And the whole world can talk and can be involved if it is opened for the people from all over the world. We are open for all the other world languages, we just need the volunteers to translate the website to those languages," said party founder and president Matthias Poehm, a public speaking trainer from Bonstetten, just outside Zurich. "We have members, volunteers who were so happy to participate and they have translated the entire website to Croatian. The same is with the website in Slovakian."

Poehm is not the first to express a distaste for PowerPoint. In 2003, Edward Tufte, a specialist in the visual representation of numerical data, published an essay "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint" accusing the software of hurting our ability to think. And last year, The New York Times warned: "We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint," an essay on the U.S. military's use of incomprehensible slide presentations to convey its strategy.

International backing for the APPP's goals may be there, but the party is still some way off the 100,000 Swiss supporters it needs to force a referendum: Since its creation on May 5, APPP has signed up 245 members -- not a huge number for a party that's free to join.

One thing party members do have to pay for is the full party manifesto, set out in the book "The PowerPoint Fallacy" authored by Poehm. Party members pay €17, a reduction of €10 on the regular price.

So is this just a promotional gimmick?

"Yes, it is a tool to promote my book. But it doesn't end there," Poehm said via e-mail.

"This issue will be raised in the awareness of the all people who still don't know that there is an alternative to PowerPoint and with this alternative you, provably, achieve three to five times more effect and excitement with the audience than with the PowerPoint," he said. "We want ... that pupils in schools are not punished by a mark reduction if they don't use PowerPoint," he said.

The alternative, for Poehm, is the humble flipchart, which he values for the creativity it encourages, and the appeal of seeing the presentation created live.

Poehm's goal with the APPP is not really to prohibit the use of presentation software, he said. "We just want the people to become aware of this issue and the alternative to it. The solutions are available, but nobody is using them."

Microsoft did not respond to a request for comment on Monday about the APPP's position and plans.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

France: Degree reform to boost graduate employability

(From the OECD)

A minimum of 1,500 teaching hours, programmes tailored to individual students and work experience for all students who want it are key features of the reformed licence, France's three-year equivalent to the bachelor degree.

Presenting her last major reform, as outgoing Minister for Higher Education and Research, Valérie Pécresse (pictured) said the new licence would be "a diploma of reference for both students and employers".

In keeping with universities' autonomous status, each institution will devise its own programmes. But as well as guaranteeing all students an education of quality, courses must focus on preparing them for professional life.

Due to be introduced progressively from September 2012, the reform builds on a five-year, EUR730 million (US$1 billion) programme introduced by Pécresse in 2007 to improve the success rate of students taking their first degree, and to cut the first-year failure rate of nearly 50%.

Germany's once-lauded education system is under fire. But fixing it hasn't been easy.

(From the WSJ)

Germany, the birthplace of kindergarten and the modern university, has long been admired for its commitment to education and for good reason: For generations its specialized schools produced more than their share of Nobel Prize winners, as well as the highest skilled tradesmen—high-octane fuel for Europe's economic powerhouse.

oday, however, Germany is coming to grips with a much different report card—that of an academic underachiever. Almost one-fifth of Germany's 15-year-olds can't read proficiently, and just 29.8% of young adults have a higher-education degree, below the European Union average of 33.6%. Many students who attend the country's lower-tier high schools don't leave with the skills they need to get additional training in a trade, according to the government's 2010 education report.

For a country whose primary asset is brain power, Germany can hardly afford to lag behind in education. Fearing that large swaths of the future work force may soon be too uneducated to maintain Germany's export-driven economy, much less support its fast-aging population, policy makers have wrestled with a range of reforms in recent years despite deep support within society for the current educational system.

"Being just OK is not good enough for a country with high living standards, wages and technology," says Jörg Dräger, board member responsible for education programs at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a German think tank.

Many policy makers believe Germany's early-selection school system—one of the few in Europe that splits children up at around age 10—is at the heart of the problem. After four years of primary school in most German regions, the smartest go on to Gymnasien, top-level high schools for university-bound students, while average students are directed to Realschulen, a path usually to white-collar or technical trades. Those with the lowest grades go to Hauptschulen, schools traditionally meant to prepare students for mid-to lower-level vocational training but that over time have become reservoirs for immigrant children and others who have fallen through the cracks.

More than in most other developed countries, however, the biggest determinant of a German child's educational track appears to be his or her family's socioeconomic status. Even with similar grades, children with college-educated parents are at least three times more likely to go on to Gymnasien than those from working-class families, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That's of particular concern as Germany's poorly assimilated immigrant population swells—some 20% of Germany's school children come from Turkish or other immigrant families. While the rest of the system scores average or better in many education standards, "the 20% or so that gets lost is a catastrophe," says Mr. Dräger.

Nevertheless, the three-track system continues to have deep support within society, partly because of Germany's past education and economic success. Most prized—and staunchly defended—are Germany's academically rigorous Gymnasien.

"The idea is that homogenous learning groups are better at helping children perform," says Katharina Spiess, education and family research director at the German Institute for Economic Research, of the early-selection system.

But Germany received a rude shock nearly a decade ago, when its teens unexpectedly scored in the bottom third of a widely watched OECD study, well behind many European peers.

German states, which control the education system, have made modest changes, and academic improvement, since then. In some regions, Hauptschulen arebeing combined with Realschulen, and in most cases, students at the combined secondary schools still have the option of pursuing a course toward a diploma that would allow them to attend a university.

But the collapse of a plan to reform schools in the port city-state of Hamburg last year underscores the difficulty of pushing through bolder reform. There, the city's conservative-Green ruling coalition pitched a plan to extend primary school by two years, waiting until after the sixth grade to divide children into different schools. The idea was to give children more time to determine the best education path, and let poorer and slower learners benefit from mixing longer with faster ones.

The result was a fierce backlash, especially among university-educated parents who feared their children's education would suffer by shortening the Gymnasium phase of it. Voters decisively rejected the plan in a referendum last July, leading to the resignation of Hamburg's mayor.

The defeat has discouraged political leaders in other German states from broaching more radical school reform. North-Rhine Westphalia sought to sidestep a similar battle by allowing individual municipalities to decide whether to form schools that kept children together until up to the 10th grade as part of a pilot project.

That didn't stop protests among some parents and teachers. In April, a judge blocked one of the first moves to form a so-called community school, putting the effort in legal limbo.

Still, many Germans argue its education system needs to become less rigid to adapt to an ever more global economy and give its people more opportunities to broaden their skills.

Sabine Lochner-Zerbe, a 51-year-old mother of two in Berlin, learned firsthand the difficulties of changing education course when as a youth she was sent to Realschule.

"I had the grades, but my father didn't think it was so necessary for girls to go to Gymnasium," she says. After training to become a florist, she realized she wanted to go to college. To do so, however, she had to go back for three years of high school to get the necessary diploma. At age 25, she began her university studies, eventually receiving a physics degree in Scotland.

But her tenacious efforts to pursue a higher degree haven't always been looked upon favorably. "People just view it as indecision," she says.

In Berlin, children already wait until after the sixth grade to take a specific school path. Ms. Lochner-Zerbe's 10-year-old daughter will learn next year whether her primary school recommends her for Gymnasium—"a lot of stress," she adds. "But I think it's better that they have more time than I did."