The Elite Master’s Degrees That Don’t Pay Off
July 8, 2021 5:38 PM   Subscribe

Financially Hobbled for Life (Free link to WSJ article.) Columbia and other top universities push master’s programs that fail to generate enough income for graduates to keep up with six-figure federal loans.

Undergraduate students for years have faced ballooning loan balances. But now it is graduate students who are accruing the most onerous debt loads. Unlike undergraduate loans, the federal Grad Plus loan program has no fixed limit on how much grad students can borrow—money that can be used for tuition, fees and living expenses[...]The no-limit loans make master’s degrees a gold mine for universities.
posted by mono blanco (123 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Maciej Ceglowski was not impressed.
Pinboard: This is my favorite genre of article in the world. Why don't professors do more to warn the most highly educated, intelligent young people in the country not to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt? How else could they possibly figure it out?

Christopher Scott: Reading this article just made me sad. By the time they even get into the classes in front of profs it’s too late. The school recruiters and brand sellers have done their work. Nobody suggested to them to do a cost benefit analysis. It’s very unfortunate.

Pinboard: It's entirely their fault. Use the big brain God gave you for something besides getting into Columbia.
posted by russilwvong at 6:07 PM on July 8 [13 favorites]


At least as far back as 2016, students said, they complained to top administrators about debt.

Twenty years previous to that, same MFA program: I remember a classmate shouting "We'll starve," only half joking, when he found out how little writing pays.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:09 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


“NYU is always focused on affordability, and an important part of that is, of course, to help prospective students make informed decisions,” said spokesman John Beckman.

Mr. Beckman, we have known for generations that the parts of the brain related to risk and long term planning are not fully formed until about the point where you are graduating from a Master’s program. Who should be making these informed decisions, and how do you live with yourself?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:13 PM on July 8 [33 favorites]


I liked this article but I wish it hadn't focused so much on MFAs. As the comments reveal, it makes it too easy for the takeaway to be "well, what on earth are these people thinking- of course art doesn't pay!" I know plenty of people in serious debt as a result of going to law school, med school, an MBA, a masters in nonprofit admin, or other more practical degrees. There are just very few careers that make doing into six-figure debt worth it though.
posted by coffeecat at 6:29 PM on July 8 [78 favorites]


Why don't professors do more to warn the most highly educated, intelligent young people in the country not to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt? How else could they possibly figure it out?

Is the Pinboard guy slowly morphing into some sort of reactionary crank? That sounds.....not out of place at the Thanksgiving table.

Here's how I see it. You have smart, successful young people. Successful at what? At school. They may have worked some, but they have been going to school since they were small. Getting As, pleasing parents, pleasing teachers. Their whole life, they have been told that education is the key to success. I have heard that lots of families now seem to think that if admission to a very top college is not attained, you might as well forget about the future, you are going to be trapped in mediocrity forever. They have also been told that whatever makes them happy is fine, that their parents just want for them to be happy. I like to imagine how it would have gone, at my somewhat privileged public high school in an neighborhood stocked like a trout stream with highly educated professionals, if one of us had come home and, say, announced that we weren't going to college because what would make us happy is enlisting in the Marine Corps.

So. It is not so easy for these kids to get off the ladder. It goes against the grain. They have always been taught that more school and more achievement are the only way forward. Now, the new word is: not so fast, grad school is maybe a good idea, maybe a huge mistake. It depends on a lot of things. I don't think it's psychologically all that easy for top tier new grads to hear that.
posted by thelonius at 6:33 PM on July 8 [110 favorites]


Is the Pinboard guy slowly morphing into some sort of reactionary crank?

Yeah, the rest of the tweets in that thread are even worse. I flagged the comment because it's just a complete derail of this article. Might be fine if it were a much later comment, but it's dominating the discussion instead of us discussing the actual article.
posted by explosion at 6:40 PM on July 8 [7 favorites]


The crux of this is that you can’t declare bankruptcy over student loan debt. If you could, institutions would very quickly start behaving like they do everywhere else that you can borrow legitimate money, and prevent people from taking out loans they had no chance of repaying, but these kids are on the hook for life.
posted by mhoye at 6:41 PM on July 8 [113 favorites]


It would be better if these careers actually did pay enough to afford the education because we need people to do these jobs for us. What's the future going to be without professionals. This is actually how we get to Idiocracy.
posted by bleep at 6:42 PM on July 8 [18 favorites]


Are there actually elite master's degrees? I'm honestly trying to understand what that means. For decades now I've heard the advice, which I agree with, that you should never pay for graduate school out of pocket. You're incurring significant opportunity costs (ask me how I know) for just being in graduate school, you shouldn't pay for the tuition in addition to that.
posted by mollweide at 6:42 PM on July 8 [15 favorites]


I worked with a woman who was quite financially successful and went to get an MFA, just for fun. Good for her, although my mind was blown when she told me it cost her $250,000. This was, I should point out, money that she was perfectly capable of throwing into a pit and setting on fire without it causing her any stress at all, but the idea that other people, people not in her financial situation, might be doing the same.

I'm not sure that it's possible to get $250,000 worth of value from an MFA.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 6:47 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]


There are absolutely universities that pull in students by using their name to promote their non-MFA programs. For example, data science is an extremely popular area right now and top universities and colleges are cranking out cookie-cutter two-year MSc programs left and right. Some of these curriculums live up to the universities' names . . . many don't. And even the ones that do might still have you paying $50k/year for the pleasure. Of course, what they won't tell you is that many companies are highly skeptical of these degrees and for standard jobs they would prefer someone who studied pure stats or computer science or physics or engineering provided they have something in their curricula that indicates they know what machine learning is and can code. And if you want to do cool, algorithm programming type stuff you sure as hell are not going to pick that up from these data science MSc farms.
posted by schroedinger at 6:59 PM on July 8 [16 favorites]


Universities are a business. They sell education into a market which has been indoctrinated into believing that a college degree is necessary. Their customers, like all customers, are obliged to secure the funds to pay for their product. The universities are handed the cash upfront for each enrolled student. Cash, for the most part provided by taxpayers. The universities face no risk. Student = $$$. From the student point of view, are they asking the question, am I getting my money’s worth in this deal? The assumption is that university degree equals earning ability for the student. This article tries to demonstrate that this assumption is wrong. Horribly wrong. Meanwhile, the administrative staff at universities make loads of money. It’s a racket. Coupled with the demise of tenured faculty as low payed adjunct faculty now provide the teaching, this racket is even worse.
posted by njohnson23 at 7:00 PM on July 8 [8 favorites]


Are there actually elite master's degrees? I'm honestly trying to understand what that means.

Any masters degree from a fancy school with national name recognition. Yes, nobody should pay for a PhD (though even the University of Chicago doesn't fully fund all of its PhDs), and many institutions do either partially or completely waive tuition for at least some of their masters students and/or offer the ability to make some money as a TA. I know someone who got a full-ride to get an MFA at Yale, and she got a few TA-ships, so her debt in the end was merely 4-figures. Columbia/NYU are selling access to their faculty and their location in a desirable city, with a bit of disingenuous marketing.
posted by coffeecat at 7:08 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


Are there actually elite master's degrees? I'm honestly trying to understand what that means. For decades now I've heard the advice, which I agree with, that you should never pay for graduate school out of pocket. You're incurring significant opportunity costs (ask me how I know) for just being in graduate school, you shouldn't pay for the tuition in addition to that.

Depending on the field where you go to grad school can matter an enormous amount or very little at all. Going to a non-elite law school is a terrible idea unless you have a full ride scholarship and don't mind working for yourself while post graduate education degrees are usually undertaken mid-career for a small salary bump and studied at the most convenient school.
posted by zymil at 7:10 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]


Are there actually elite master's degrees?

Sure. Kennedy School and the top other few MPA/MPP programs act vaguely like the grandes ecoles in France. Top MBA programs, whatever those are these days. Library science, public health, other fields.

I'm honestly trying to understand what that means. For decades now I've heard the advice, which I agree with, that you should never pay for graduate school out of pocket.

(edited for clarity:)
That mostly applies to academic grad programs, like in political science or sociology or math.

MPA, MPP, MLS, MBA, etc -- those are professional MAs, not academic ones. They're explicitly preparation for different kinds of jobs in the limited way that, say, a JD is. You (or sometimes your employer, for things like MBAs) are usually gonna write big checks for professional MA programs.

AFAIK, MFA programs could go either way depending on whether they concentrating on the art or on running an organization.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:11 PM on July 8 [13 favorites]


A small tangent: the prevailing theory in political science is that revolutions are correlated to large numbers of unemployed young men.

But there is an alternate theory, known as the 'surplus elite' theory, which is that revolts and civil wars happen when there is specifically a surplus of persons trained but excluded from the elite echelons of the state. Men like Vladimir Ulyanov (paralegal), Mao Tse Tung (research librarian), Che Guevara (Med student).

But oh well. It's not like those guys at McKinsey are being paid to remember history....
posted by LeRoienJaune at 7:19 PM on July 8 [68 favorites]


Going straight into grad school from undergrad is its own kind of mistake. Most of the value of graduate school is what you learn from other students, and you've got nothing to add and nothing to gain when the school's recruitment strategy is trying to snag young adults straight out of undergrad.

I paid out of pocket for an MBA and an MSc at a university where the tuition was thankfully highly subsidized by the endowment. I learned the most from my classmates and I got my job from a classmate's reference. The school was in the midst of changing their recruitment strategy from established adults to wunderkind out of undergrad and I was lucky to graduate with the cohort that I did. All things considered, I'll have my debt paid off pretty easily in a few years.

Maybe "buyer beware" is too callous, but another way to think about it is that these schools are shooting themselves in the foot. They'd probably have more alumni engagement, better outcomes and better word-of-mouth if they aimed to recruit and consult prospective students who have more financial wisdom. Maybe it's my MBA, but it's hard for me to feel sorry for people at the Master's level who don't do their due diligence with regard to ROI when we're talking about six digits of investment. I'd say nobody buys a house without doing that kind of research, but I remember 2008
posted by Skwirl at 7:20 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it’s weird to lump all Master’s programs together. There’s huge difference between an MBA and an MPH and an MS in say petroleum engineering. It would make more sense to evaluate by discipline rather than by school.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:21 PM on July 8 [14 favorites]


"While Columbia is wealthy, it isn’t as wealthy as schools like Yale, limiting the funds available for scholarships, Mr. Bollinger, three Columbia deans and other top university administrators said."

Columbia has an $11 billion endowment, which they deliberately do not spend in favor of charging exorbitant tuition. And by "schools like Yale" they actually mean "the 11 schools in the nation that have a larger endowment than us."
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:22 PM on July 8 [45 favorites]


Is the Pinboard guy slowly morphing into some sort of reactionary crank? That sounds.....not out of place at the Thanksgiving table.

Here's how I see it. You have smart, successful young people. Successful at what? At school. They may have worked some, but they have been going to school since they were small. Getting As, pleasing parents, pleasing teachers. Their whole life, they have been told that education is the key to success.


Your take is better than Ceglowski's, for sure. Most people have little idea how the world works at 20, and only the vaguest sense of what constitutes success or confers status, and it's easy to see how some of the most conscientious and industrious people who have schooled the heck out of school their whole lives get on that conveyor belt and let it take them for all they're worth and then some.

That said, I think it'd be a shame to write Ceglowski off as a reactionary crank for a bad take -- his efforts to fund good democratic candidates for state legislature have done a hell of a lot more than any of my blathering on the blue no matter how ideologically correct I might imagine myself to be, and his brand of crank is often enough pointed straight at some of the ridiculous and/or pernicious aspects where tech intersects society. He's wrong sometimes, but I would guess that a coalition that brands him as a suspicious outsider might have as much work to do in calibrating its own boundaries as anything else.
posted by wildblueyonder at 7:24 PM on July 8 [19 favorites]


programs that fail to generate enough income

This framing is problematic.

There has always been a correlation between people getting degrees and people getting higher paying jobs. But the causality there is way more complicated. It's never as simple as a good degree always causing a high income.

So the idea that any degree program should be held responsible for ensuring increased future income, or that it can be judged that those who delivered the course have failed if their students don't attain that, is pretty wild, frankly.

Don't get me wrong - these unlimited, bankruptcy-proof loans are a terrible idea, and universities taking advantage of them by pushing people into programs that won't help them is ruining lives. I'm not saying the university is not at fault here.

But this framing, this idea that pedagogy should be judged by how much money alumni earn, is poisonous to good teaching of any subject. I've seen first hand the dilemmas it causes for staff.

E.g. for computer science: do you teach the fundamentals properly? Or do you drift ever more towards teaching the hot programming languages and tools of the day, because that's what will get your graduates higher paying jobs, and that's what you're increasingly evaluated on?

Think about the long term effects of what this does to the quality of teaching and understanding of a subject.
posted by automatronic at 7:26 PM on July 8 [19 favorites]


Why don't professors do more to warn the most highly educated, intelligent young people in the country not to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt?

Because then it would make them look like they think higher education is reserved only for the elite and that isn't fair either?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:32 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]


The Columbia program offers the most extreme example of how elite universities in recent years have awarded thousands of master’s degrees that don’t provide graduates enough early career earnings to begin paying down their federal student loans

If it's the most extreme example, why spend the majority of the article writing about that example? Why not talk about a range of more typical examples to give readers a clearer sense of the scope of the problem?

Oh yeah, because the goal of the article isn't to give readers a clearer sense of the scope of the problem, it's to make them get mad and share the link.
posted by escabeche at 7:33 PM on July 8 [15 favorites]


I was always told not to get a graduate degree unless someone is paying for it. What was meant by that was that unless you're independently wealthy (family) or unless your graduate school was paying your way while you taught undergrads or did research, it wasn't worth getting a graduate degree. That goes hand in hand with "don't go into grad shool unless you want to teach" exceptions being engineering, medical, etc.

I was floored when around 2010 I was hearing that peers and people younger than me were going to grad school without wanting to pursue a teaching career or a career in academia. I remember getting really dirty looks when I asked how they were expecting to pay for that. I would have loved to stay in school and pursued degrees that weren't just practical sciences or practical degrees like med school. But I didn't because of costs, I assumed the majority were getting grants or parent "loans."

I guess not, keep in mind that classism has a huge factor in this, especially in top schools. I know as I have family that went to top MFA programs in the country courtesy of rich parents, and they summered in the Maldives then took internships for practically nothing at Sotheby's then married a midtown banker or lawyer. I can only imagine there's a not insignificant subset of people who are vulnerable in that "I'm a real adult now" sort of way we all have getting out of college where there's no longer a clear cut path to success and see grad school as a good place to park themselves while they figure it out. That's a very expensive way to figure things out and/or achieve petit bourgeois fufillment.
posted by geoff. at 7:34 PM on July 8 [8 favorites]


Wait let me fix the byline:

By Melissa Korn (Columbia University, MS Journalism) and Andrea Fuller (Columbia University, Adjunct Professor)
posted by geoff. at 7:36 PM on July 8 [17 favorites]


On the other hand, master's degrees in the arts at Manhattan universities specifically have been known as financial albatrosses for over 20 years. Meghan Daum identified her enrollment in Columbia's MFA program as "a rich person's decision" and the "single moment when I crossed the boundary between debtlessness and total financial mayhem" in 1999. Columbia and NYU, specifically, have been doing this to students for decades. I think there should be institutional and regulatory changes to stop this bullshit, but at that same time I don't feel that much sympathy for the well-educated people who really should have known better than to play razzle dazzle and expect to win.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 7:40 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


The gasoline on the fire here, just as with the 2008 financial crisis, is moral hazard: "In economics, moral hazard occurs when an entity has an incentive to increase its exposure to risk because it does not bear the full costs of that risk." Don't misinterpret the word "moral" here. It has nothing to do with morality in this special use of the word. Moral hazard means you can screw other people by encouraging them to take debt, leaving the government holding the bag while you run away with the cash. It's even worse with student debt than with home loans because as mhoye notes above, you can't declare bankruptcy to wipe out your student debt.

Just as the banks encouraged home buyers to go into debt to buy homes they couldn't afford, so do universities encourage students to go into debt to purchase educations that won't generate income. Neither the banks nor the universities care. They sell the loans to the government and get the cash up front. No risk to them. That's moral hazard.

Sure, you can blame the home buyers or the students if you want. You can say, "They should have known better." But when a bank or a university is shoveling out money, cramming it down your throat, it's not really the fault of the homeowner or the student that they agree to take it. The homeowner assumes the bank knows what they're doing. The student assumes the university knows what it's doing. And they do know what they're doing. They're leaving people burdened with massive debt and letting the government go try to collect it.

The solution is easy. Universities should lend only their own money and be prohibited from selling the loans. If student loans can't be wiped out in bankruptcy, universities shouldn't be allowed to escape their moral obligations either.
posted by mono blanco at 7:40 PM on July 8 [64 favorites]


this idea that pedagogy should be judged by how much money alumni earn, is poisonous to good teaching of any subject.

Sure, but how many people would be signing up for these programs if they didn't believe they would have a positive financial ROI over time? A whole lot fewer, I'd reckon.

I think the universities shoulder more of the blame than the students; it's the universities who market programs, under the expectation that students will take out huge, bankruptcy-proof loans to pay for them, and probably never be able to pay them off. How many of them are being upfront about that? In other contexts we'd call that lack of transparency a form of predatory behavior.

Our society has a blind spot when it comes to calling out universities for unscrupulous, predatory behavior, IMO because too many of the people who would normally do the calling-out in other contexts (e.g. if it was a regular, for-profit corporation doing the predatory thing) work in academia and are dependent on the predatory system of education financing for their own paychecks and job security. And so, at least until recently when they problem has become really severe, it has seemed like higher ed has gotten sort of a free pass.

I'm all for learning-for-learning's sake, and it would be great if everyone could afford to study whatever the hell they wanted for a few years as an adult, completely unrelated to its marketability or future salary effects, but that's just not realistic for the average person.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:44 PM on July 8 [18 favorites]


I have heard that lots of families now seem to think that if admission to a very top college is not attained, you might as well forget about the future, you are going to be trapped in mediocrity forever. They have also been told that whatever makes them happy is fine, that their parents just want for them to be happy.

what in the world. no, not "also," this is not correct. you are describing two totally, totally different kinds of bad family cultures/subcultures. I won't say they are mutually exclusive because I'm sure somebody somewhere heard & believed both messages. but for the vast majority of people, they might hear one line of propaganda from their parents and they might hear the other, but they absolutely don't hear both.

they also aren't obliged to believe every bit of nonsense that comes out of their parents' faces; most kids don't. but that is another issue entirely.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:46 PM on July 8 [5 favorites]


explosion, I understand. Sorry!
posted by thelonius at 7:51 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


I've spent LITERALLY (and I literally mean "literally") 30 years investigating masters and PhD options in order to put to rest what, for me, was a very unsatisfying and incomplete grad school experience when I was in my 20s.

It is my white whale. It has become my "borne back ceaselessly into the past". The albatross around my neck. The one area of my life that has left me deeply unsatisfied and feeling inadequate and incomplete. I suspect this will be a thorn in my side until I die. Honestly, and quite sincerely, it's a form of obsession and I really should have just paid a few thousand bucks decades ago for some quality therapy so I could put it all behind me. Maybe I will one day, and exorcise this demon.

Nevertheless, about half a dozen times a year I get the bug for going "back" to grad school and satisfying the urge for a positive experience. I'll spend a few evenings surfing the net, searching for the latest masters and doctorates. Documenting their curricula, requirements, cost. Which ones require the GRE vs the MAT vs no test. Accelerated vs traditional semesters. Pure online vs residency requirements. US, Canada, UK, Australia, India, South America, anywhere they may offer instruction in English. (Netherlands!)

And after a few nights of this, I realize that I'm doing it again, sigh wistfully, and close the browser tabs, and re-commit myself to achieving healthy self-actualization without yet another graduate degree.

I mention all of this because I am an intelligent, generally worldly, college professor in my mid-50s, and who certainly knows better. But because of social conditioning and the sense that we are in some sense defined by our accolades and educational achievement -- particularly when we are interacting in academia -- I nevertheless find myself drawn back into a toxic quest for the affirmation that comes from those post-nomial letters.

So how in the world, given my own personal, decades-long sturm und drang about this, could I expect my students, who are barely adults in their early 20s, be expected to understand the psycho-social (to say nothing of the financial) snares surrounding advanced educational attainment?
posted by darkstar at 7:57 PM on July 8 [91 favorites]


Maybe it's my MBA, but it's hard for me to feel sorry for people at the Master's level who don't do their due diligence with regard to ROI when we're talking about six digits of investment.

I would say that maybe it is the MBA, since I had no idea what a ROI was (that's French for "king", right?) until well after I got my degree. As an undergrad, I had no preparation whatsoever for matching my interests and aptitudes with a career that might provide gainful employment for as long as I needed it. Some of that might be coming from a background and era in which it was assumed that getting any college degree meant that you could get a decent job, somewhere, as if the number of people admitted to college were somehow pegged to the number of jobs expected to be available for them. I was lucky enough to a) find out that universities gave their staff tuition waivers, b) get a job at one with a good library school, and c) get into the field when there were still a good number of job openings.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:05 PM on July 8 [11 favorites]


Master's programs in Europe are sooooooo cheap comparatively. I was amazed when I was looking at a particular discipline and the one-year Loyola Chicago program that would be studying in Rome the entire time cost around $35k for the year (exclusive of living expenses) in comparison to a comparable European program near Florence that cost, if I remember correctly, €8000 total.

The American educational system is broken in so many ways.
posted by Gadarene at 8:07 PM on July 8 [27 favorites]


Yeah, sadly the US American concept of "freedom" often manifests as "the freedom to be screwed over in various ways, generally for someone else's profit."
posted by darkstar at 8:10 PM on July 8 [18 favorites]


Mr. Beckman, we have known for generations that the parts of the brain related to risk and long term planning are not fully formed until about the point where you are graduating from a Master’s program. Who should be making these informed decisions, and how do you live with yourself?

I wish you could give young people a little more credit for having some sense of agency. There are a whole lotta them that looked at that loan application, and said "sounds like fun, but fuck that bullshit".

I think the bigger tragedy is from young people, often from families who are on the bottom rung, really encouraging their kids to get that education at all costs. Because education is the key to upward mobility, right? This isn't a problem of immature skills of reasoning so much as ambition, ability, and asymmetrical information.

Yet who is really willing to say no to such students? Even if it's the wisest, kindest, and most merciful thing to do on their behalf?

This doesn't even begin to address the perverse incentives on the institutions, encouraging students to develop their knowledge as far as they can, and receive steady, low risk compensation as a result.

But there is an alternate theory, known as the 'surplus elite' theory, which is that revolts and civil wars happen when there is specifically a surplus of persons trained but excluded from the elite echelons of the state. Men like Vladimir Ulyanov (paralegal), Mao Tse Tung (research librarian), Che Guevara (Med student).

Ok, but how does one explain Jan 6? The most motivated are the average, enjoying substantial benefits of privilege, yet feel victimized and excluded, despite their comfort? Thank dog they are, in fact, as average as they are.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:14 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


mono blanco, thank you for linking to this, and thank you for providing the free WSJ link which was very helpful!

Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy by Tressie McMillan Cottom (2017, The New Press) is simply excellent and helped me understand the forces leading to this sort of situation. Here's an excerpt, and here's Dr. McMillan Cottom's page about the book.

Lower Ed helped me understand how the availability of easy-to-get, hard-to-repay student loans (and the fact that, if I understand correctly, you cannot discharge them by declaring bankruptcy), and the risk shift where individuals rather than employers pay for and provide training, and the ratchet of higher and higher expectations for job candidates' educational attainment, provide incentives for institutions to sell low-quality educational packages at high prices. Just to quote from the first few chapters:
As it turns out, there is such a thing as "bad" education. It is an educational option that, by design, cannot increase students' odds of beating the circumstances of their birth....
...the way we work shapes what kind of credentials we produce. If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market. To be more precise, we have a labor market where the social contract between workers and the work on which college has previously relied has fundamentally changed and makes workers vulnerable.

While there is a lot of academic debate about the extent of that change and whether it signals progress or decline, there is substantial evidence that suggests all of those changes shift new risks to workers....

Whether you are a kindergarten teacher, an admissions counselor, or a college professor, working in education is a lot like being a priest. You shepherd people's collective faith in themselves and their trust in social institutions....

Despite our shift to understanding higher education as a personal good, we have held on to the narrative of all education being inherently good and moral. Economists E. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson call this the education gospel: our faith in education as moral, personally edifying, collectively beneficial, and a worthwhile investment no matter the cost, either individual or societal....The contradiction is that we don't like to talk about higher education in terms of jobs, but rather in terms of citizenship and the public good, even when that isn't the basis of our faith....
geoff. wrote: I was always told not to get a graduate degree unless someone is paying for it.

I have a master's in tech management from Columbia and I think, in my class of about 30, no one was paying for it themselves; their employers were paying for it (mostly big companies, some people at large nonprofits such as the big NYC museums or in a few government offices; I was one of I think 2 people working at a startup). I learned some things and got some useful credentials and both are useful now. I was also mentored by a guy who turned out to be a former East German sleeper agent, which turned out to be educational in its own way.
posted by brainwane at 8:14 PM on July 8 [24 favorites]


I was lucky enough to...

A while back I would have said I was smart and had it figured out, but really I got lucky and walked into a situation where I was able to get an elite education for close to nothing out of pocket. I feel really bad for all the people who get trapped in predatory situations, whether at Columbia or at Trump University -- it isn't right that people can get stuck in such terrible straits over education.

Master's programs in Europe are sooooooo cheap comparatively.

The grad school I attended was (and still is) full of European students, but I don't know if they were taking out loans or if they were riding on some cushy EU scholarship program or what. Either way, the costs of the US system haven't been enough to stop attracting European and other foreign students, despite cheaper alternatives at home. What happens post-Covid is another question entirely, of course.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:15 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


I think the bigger tragedy is from young people, often from families who are on the bottom rung, really encouraging their kids to get that education at all costs. Because education is the key to upward mobility, right? This isn't a problem of immature skills of reasoning so much as ambition, ability, and asymmetrical information.

Most of these kids aren't getting Columbia MFAs; they're going to the kinds of for-profit schools McMillan Cottom focused on in that book. Those stories are so awful and depressing that it was a genuine perk of changing jobs that related litigation wouldn't be on my docket anymore.
posted by praemunire at 8:20 PM on July 8 [7 favorites]


The crux of this is that you can’t declare bankruptcy over student loan debt. If you could, institutions would very quickly start behaving like they do everywhere else that you can borrow legitimate money, and prevent people from taking out loans they had no chance of repaying, but these kids are on the hook for life.

It wouldn't matter if you could declare bankruptcy -- the schools still get their money up front, so they don't care what your outcome is. Most of the people profiled in the article seem to be using the income-based repayment plans with the exit plan of having things forgiven after 25 years if their income never goes up enough to repay. If that can work, then the debt is really more abstract than real.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:30 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]




Buried in all the Ivy League MFA outrage-bait stories in this article is one statistic for one speech language pathology program—average $148,000 in debt for an average income of $60,000. As a person in healthcare, I assure you that there are absolutely speech therapy jobs out there. The problem here is a mismatch between amounts of debt and a level of pay that both allows people to live comfortably and be adequately compensated for their expertise. If that mismatch exists for a job-oriented masters like speech pathology of course it’s only going to be starker for MFAs.

As much as I want arts education to be accessible to everyone, I really don’t love it when stories about the ways that student debt entraps people focus on arts degrees and/or elite programs. Coming from the Wall Street Journal, especially, it seems like deliberate culture-war stoking. “Personal responsibility” Republicans get to dunk on people who made “bad choices” while also hating the arts. Here on center-left MeFi we can still split hairs about whether anyone “should” be paying for a masters or not, even if we’re more sympathetic to artistic pursuits. It’s bait to make everyone fight over whether these people are misguided for taking on giant loans or not, or whether MFAs or worth it, when the reality is that everyone’s wages are stagnating.

PS-There will come a time in the not-too-distant future where I will need to pursue a professional masters in my field (nursing) to meet my career goals. My employer does have some subsidy, but it will not meet the entire cost of the degree, and this is the case for many of my friends I’ve talked to who have earned professional degrees with employer assistance. People here talking about how employers need to pay for these degrees giving off some real Old Economy Steve vibes.
posted by ActionPopulated at 8:43 PM on July 8 [43 favorites]


never read the comments!
posted by lalochezia at 8:44 PM on July 8


I see a lot of symmetry here to between the amount of foreign born software engineers who have masters degrees. They are on the hook for full-freight tuition, so the schools like them, but the value to the student seems to be the ability to get a 3 year OPT chance to get a company to sponsor then in the H1-B lottery. While not quite the same, it's similar in that the goal never seems to be education.

Which is fine for the students particularly! Our immigration system is screwed up enough I certainly don't begrudge anyone for trying to get their foot in the door. It's definitely sketchy though how these students are seen as piggy banks but then 'reputable' schools.
posted by Carillon at 8:44 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]


Maciej Ceglowski was not impressed.

COVID or maybe Trump is turning this guy from a humanist iconoclast with an exceptional commitment to creating good projects into an reactionary Andy Rooney. Maciej, come back!
posted by latkes at 8:47 PM on July 8 [11 favorites]


It’s bait to make everyone fight

Pretty much this, until we get the severe problem of income inequality addressed.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:54 PM on July 8


"I wish you could give young people a little more credit for having some sense of agency. There are a whole lotta them that looked at that loan application, and said "sounds like fun, but fuck that bullshit"."

What I was shocked by -- am STILL shocked by, almost 20 years later -- is that when I went to law school (with a very generous scholarship, and working under the table as a nanny (the ABA forbade 1Ls from working at the time), so I took out relatively small loans to cover living expenses that I wasn't covering myself), I was given some information by mail with the general terms of the loans that would be offered and a sort of "FAQ about student loans." But I was not given the loan paperwork itself until the day before classes started when I had already moved 1200 miles and signed a year-long lease and enrolled. I started reading the loan documents while a smarmy guy fast-talked at the front of the room while 120 of the nation's best and brightest went over their loan documents with wide, horrified eyes. What was actually IN the loan documents, the actual terms, were so much starker and scarier than it had been made to sound by the "how to do your FAFSA!" stuff from the school made it sound.

But what we were going to do? It was way, way too fucking late to back out by the time you actually saw the terms. Everyone had a year-long lease they couldn't break. Nobody had a job -- we had to give up our (legit) jobs to enroll; 1Ls aren't allowed to work. People had moved across the country, bought furniture; some uprooted their spouses and children; others came right from college and had no money or career to fall back on to pay that year-long lease if they didn't take the loans. CLASSES STARTED TOMORROW. There was no time to think it over, no time to look for alternative arrangements. You signed the fuckin' paperwork for the horrifying loans, or you threw your entire life into chaos -- including substantial financial chaos. No wonder so many people crossed their fingers and signed, hoping that a law degree would enable them to pay the loans off -- because NOT signing meant they were completely fucked and would have to find a job and a new living situation VERY FAST, and pay for breaking that lease.

If I had seen the loan documents before THE DAY BEFORE CLASSES BEGAN when I had already moved and was already locked into a year-long lease, I probably would have gone to my parents, or my grandfather, and asked if we could make a private loan arrangement on basically the same terms, but with far less "WE WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE FOREVER THERE IS NO BANKRUPTCY HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA" in it. I borrowed a very small amount as law school loans go (around $6,200/year), that I think my parents could have afforded to lend me, and I would have gone full-on official contract, paid interest, etc. But by the time I was there and they sprung the loan documents on me, there wasn't really a choice. If you had applied for FAFSA money, the school wouldn't enroll you without your loan documents completed, and it was seriously 16 hours before classes began.

What choice did I have but to sign them? It was absolutely coerced.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:01 PM on July 8 [109 favorites]


COVID or maybe Trump is turning this guy from a humanist iconoclast with an exceptional commitment to creating good projects into an reactionary Andy Rooney. Maciej, come back!

Yeah, I've liked the guy, I even went to his "Tech Resistance" meetings (or whatever they were branded as) when he spun them up, and I've kept a donating cadence up to Gender Justice League since then since they do good work; but he's gone very "kids these days, with their wokeness and caring about irrelevant things, how about they organize to do *real* things like electricians not wanting to be electrocuted!".

So... I wouldn't exactly look to him on this sort of topic these days.
posted by CrystalDave at 9:46 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]


What I haven't seen mentioned in the discussion of this story is that added incentive of the belief that the real value of these programs is the networking, the access, the secret society into which your Ivy League degree admits you. You're not really expected to wave your degree around to open doors; it's that you know who to phone on the inside to let you in.

I have a friend with a PhD in philosophy and a tenured position teaching it (at a mediocre mid-tier uni), and he's said outright that he would mortgage his whole retirement to send at least one of his kids to an Ivy. I point out to him that he has a great life and rare outcome, and that he got their without the Ivy pedigree, the contacts, the "elite" helping him... and he says it doesn't matter, the whole quality of your life is on another plane once you've graduated from one of these prestigious programs or institutions, because of the people you know afterwards.

Which is obviously bullshit after ten seconds of thought, but the myth is powerful. Why would go $300k into debt for a $30k/year job? Because you'll know all the people you need to know to succeed.
posted by fatbird at 10:07 PM on July 8 [11 favorites]


I'm set to graduate in December with a BS in education (Secondary Industrial Technology), so this conversation is very relevant to me. As mentioned up thread, teachers get a pay boost for getting a Masters, so I’ve definitely done my homework on this subject.

I’ll fully admit that Columbia Teacher’s College is my dream but I know it ain’t going to happen. Not at $1,800/credit hour. Especially since teacher contracts don’t give a shit what school granted the degree — it’s a $4k/year bump, regardless. So, I’ll likely get my degree from Western Governors or Morningside.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 10:31 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]


Coming from the Wall Street Journal, especially, it seems like deliberate culture-war stoking. “Personal responsibility” Republicans get to dunk on people who made “bad choices” while also hating the arts.

Yes. Criticism of higher education is one of those projects you must undertake with a wary eye on the right flank, which will be happy to use you for cover to attack the very idea of book learning.

Maciej, come back!

I think he has this compulsion to mock perceived elites that overruns his better thinking, like he can't help himself but be snide about an attempt at a tech union even though he's in favor of unionization generally--the fact that it's cosseted people making several hundred thousand a year just overrides that. It's unfortunate because in other ways he's quite admirable and often hilarious.
posted by praemunire at 10:56 PM on July 8 [8 favorites]


How much of Columbia's problem specifically is people borrowing money to live in New York vs actual cost from Columbia to attend?
posted by jacquilynne at 11:20 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


"How much of Columbia's problem specifically is people borrowing money to live in New York vs actual cost from Columbia to attend?"

Only the second $140,000.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:40 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]


To the extent that this is a problem - I think it is one and that it extends to the many PhD programs that implicitly or explicitly convince applicants that there are tenure-track jobs waiting for them after they graduate - it's one that U.S. academia is very ill-equipped to address on its own. The incentives that exist push us in this direction, including (but not limited to!) ever-increasing costs and decreasing state funding (for public institutions).

I know of two parties that can and should be forcing universities to address these issues. First, this is a legitimate place for trustees to step in, ask tough questions, and close or shrink existing and new programs whose graduates are mired in debt they cannot afford. It would not be popular and many people would surely cry about their loss of academic freedom but I think a board can and should do this with transparency and consistency. The traditional approach would be for the board to charge the president and provost to do this with support and oversight from the board but this seems to be the kind of thing that a board can legitimately do and must do if the president and provost are going to be able to do anything else; an unpopular board can shrug off faculty and student votes of no confidence but the president and provost must work with and have some level of trust in and from faculty, staff, and students.

Second, accreditors should be forcing institutions to provide these data and meet reasonable standards. This has been discussed quite a bit and there was significant movement under the Obama administration to do something like this ("gainful employment" is the term of art) as part of the federal regulation of for-profit institutions but that was (unsurprisingly) halted by Secretary DeVos. These ideas have also been roundly criticized by Republicans as being unfairly applied to only for-profit institutions and not to non-profit institutions. I think that many of them were not genuine in their criticism and would grasp anything they can to obstruct Democratic plans and protect their donors. But this criticism does seem to make sense to me even if many of its adherents are full of shit and don't actually believe it. The for-profit sector is a much, much worse actor in this area and deserve all of the scrutiny they receive and more. But the problem isn't limited to for-profit institutions and the overproduction of PhDs is almost certainly a phenomenon dominated by non-profit universities.
posted by ElKevbo at 11:43 PM on July 8 [4 favorites]


I enrolled in a professional masters in my early thirties, and I have similar memories to Eyebrows. I attempted to investigate the loan terms and conditions prior to signing, and it was nearly impossible to get any information at all. And the hostage conditions of waiting until days before the program starts to let you see the documents you are signing. This is absolutely by design, and my resentment about that whole process is why I don't give any donations to my alma mater.

I did everything I could to survey my few friends who had undertaken masters or MBA degrees to try to work out how it was all supposed to work financially. You mean I take out a loan for $XXX and then I get a job that pays $X? How is this feasible? How long does it take to pay it off? Everyone was so confident. "It's just how it works." I realise now they had no idea what a gamble they were making. Most of my classmates were either younger with parental assistance, or being subsidised by their employers, so it wasn't something widely discussed among my immediate peers. It was the hardest decision of my life to take that financial risk.

In the end I coped by taking out the the absolute minimum loan I thought I could get away with (despite being advised to take out much more). Being in a lower cost-of-living city really helped with living expenses, and I lucked out with a well-paid summer job in-between the first and second year and then slow but gradual gains in income following my degree. Ultimately I was able to pay off the loan much faster than anticipated (<10 years), but that was with a lot of discipline and delaying things like home ownership. I consider myself to be massively scrupulous and well-researched in my chosen field, but I know how I lucked out in this game. Some of my friends are still carrying their debt from this period because of landing lower-paid jobs after graduating or even having to give up on placement in their field of training.

Universities really do nothing to help students do this kind of decision-making, and it should be considered a breach of duty to lead people down the path to financial jeopardy. There really should be something more like informed consent at play when the debt-to-income ratio is so out of whack.
posted by amusebuche at 12:11 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


It's important to keep in mind the distorted experience of these students' parents. I got a lot of bad advice from my boomer/silent-gen parents, who had only to hunker down and Achieve in school to keep getting floated along by a generous social services system. When I dropped out of university to try and catch the trailing winds of the dot-com cash, it was like a betrayal, but they had to admit by that point they couldn't afford to help me out any more.

But it was kind of astonishing how much outdated experience they clung to. NO no you can't take a computer to your dorm! It'll get stolen! Best to write all your papers out longhand: you'll see. Phone? Well you'll have one phone at the end of the hall, but it'll be a payphone. What makes you think you'll be able to make phone calls? You keep changing jobs! It doesn't matter that you get a higher salary each time: no one will want to hire someone who can't stay at the same company for a decade! Why can't you just pay tuition by washing dishes after school??

And this set of values and the blind spots to the problems of the current day are easy to keep coasting on, and then you've helped pressure your kid into a lifetime of debt in a world that no longer looks to give clean-cut M.A.s cushy jobs paid for by the dividends of post-war growth.

I have to hope we'll see a reversal of at least this phenomenon now that millennials are 40 years old and starting to worry about what their kids will do after secondary school. But the same games played by military recruiters seem to be working for grad schools, and it's depressing.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:14 AM on July 9 [33 favorites]


It wouldn't matter if you could declare bankruptcy -- the schools still get their money up front, so they don't care what your outcome is. Most of the people profiled in the article seem to be using the income-based repayment plans with the exit plan of having things forgiven after 25 years if their income never goes up enough to repay. If that can work, then the debt is really more abstract than real.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:30 PM on July 8 [+] [!]


Actually, it would, assuming that the person holding the loan at the end does actually want you to pay it off. If these loans were dischargeable and not backed by federal programs, then the companies providing the loans would be much more wary of whether those programs produced graduates who can pay. That would force the schools to either cheapen or remove some programs unless there are enough self-funders to pay those rates.

The problem even now though is that the US Government backs those loans, and they kind of dont care whether you want to repay, they can force you to repay (garnishing your wages, keeping tax returns, going after the estate at death). So there is really no incentive from anyone not to push this because the only one with the risk is the student.
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:45 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


The grad school I attended was (and still is) full of European students, but I don't know if they were taking out loans or if they were riding on some cushy EU scholarship program or what.

Option 3: parents can afford it and were paying. You can assume this is generally the case with international students, with limited exceptions.
posted by biffa at 12:51 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Coming from the Wall Street Journal, especially, it seems like deliberate culture-war stoking. “Personal responsibility” Republicans get to dunk on people who made “bad choices” while also hating the arts

This. Absolutely this.

As a European I can’t comment too much on the US education system, but there’s definitely a drive towards making finance the only subject of note. And the returns for working in finance are so outrageously large that people are willing to overlook the disastrous health costs of extreme stress, bullying work places, and long hours. So for the WSJ to pop up and say “well, what do you know? Turns out those art courses are for suckers!” seems… a bit propaganda-ish.
posted by The River Ivel at 1:58 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


Sure, but how many people would be signing up for these programs if they didn't believe they would have a positive financial ROI over time? A whole lot fewer, I'd reckon. [...] I'm all for learning-for-learning's sake, and it would be great if everyone could afford to study whatever the hell they wanted for a few years as an adult, completely unrelated to its marketability or future salary effects, but that's just not realistic for the average person.

That's part of your country's choice of how to fund higher education. Universities don't have to be run as capitalist businesses.

The approach of individual students paying upfront in advance for their own education is always going to mean that universities end up as playgrounds for the rich, as debt-traps for the poor, and as commercial training centres which offload training costs from industry onto workers and the state.

I live in a country where undergraduate and many postgraduate degrees are state funded, so yes, other options are realistic. Education is a net public good, but its effects are not closely enough linked to individual outcomes for it to be sensible to place the funding burden on individual students.

But even here, we still have the problem that staff are under growing pressure to focus on getting their students into high paying jobs rather than teaching the subject, because of this increasing drift to the idea that that's what universities are for.

Universities are not just training centres for industry. If we continue to accept the framing that that's what they are, then we will gradually lose our society's ability to teach, understand and remember anything except how to do the jobs demanded by the industry of the day.

Industry can pay for its own goddamn training.
posted by automatronic at 2:15 AM on July 9 [33 favorites]


I think Australia kind of solves the moral hazard problem of having the government bearing the risk of unpaid loans by also giving the government the ability to regulate fees to reduce its risk, which are standardized across the country: every degree is "capped" at a certain student contribution level, which universities are not allowed to exceed (since the government loan covers it), while the government provides a fixed contribution per student.

For degrees which the government has no intention of boosting numbers of students:
-- Humanities: government contributes $1,100, student contributes $14,500
-- Commerce / Management: government contributes $1,100, student contributes $14,500

For degrees which the government wants people to study:
-- Education: government contributes $13,500, student contributes $3,700
-- Engineering / Science: government contributes $16,500, student contributes $7,700

For degrees which the government REALLY wants people to study:
-- Agriculture: government contributes $27,000, student contributes $3,700
-- Medicine: government contributes $27,000, student contributes $11,300

Note in particular the disparity between Agriculture (government foots 88% of the cost) versus Humanities (government foots 7% of the cost). These costs are fees per year.

The loans for the student contributions are zero interest, but indexed to inflation each year, and repaid out of your income tax return starting at 1% of total income at $46,620pa and rising to 10% of total income at $136,740pa

The latest figures I've seen only pertain to 2014 - of the $30 billion of outstanding student debt, the Australian Government Actuary estimates that 24% of that will not be repaid. But this includes historical debt, that has built up over time: "new" lending is estimated to have a non-repayment rate of only 17%.

There is also a breakdown of repayment rates by discipline:

Medicine / Dentistry: 5% partial repayment, 95% full repayment
Engineering / Commerce: 5% non repayment, 15% partial repayment, 80% full repayment
Humanities: 40% non repayment, 60% full repayment
Performing Arts: 40% non repayment, 10% partial repayment, 50% full repayment

The scheme continues to have strong bipartisan support: the current student loan system allows the government to reduce its expenses rather than fully paying for university education, the loans themselves are not overly burdensome to students who fail to procure a well paying job after university as they are zero interest loans repaid at % of income, and the non-repayment rate of roughly 17% is acceptable: better to educate 6 people even though 1 may not repay their loan.

Women make up the majority of students in higher education - at a rate of 100 females to only 72 males (2016) - so they also take on the majority of loans. However, their loan repayment rates are significantly lower. There are numerous reasons for this (besides the obvious one, that they're paid less), the biggest is simply the number of women in the workforce: the gap is at its greatest at age 35-39, with men having an 85% participation rate, while women have a 40% participation rate. (Graduates 20-65, 2011). As this is an income based repayment scheme, if you don't work, you don't repay. In a way, this directly gives the government an incentive to improve pay equality between genders and improve workforce participation.

Of course, there are other reasons for non repayment: a few percent of students leave Australia (if you don't pay tax in Australia, you don't repay the student loan). Roughly 25% of students drop out and fail to complete their degree, though it doesn't generally preclude one from earning a sufficiently high income later in life to repay the loan, you'd expect the probability to be lower.
posted by xdvesper at 2:59 AM on July 9 [20 favorites]


I have to hope we'll see a reversal of at least this phenomenon now that millennials are 40 years old and starting to worry about what their kids will do after secondary school.

If anything, the fact that millennials got screwed by the mantra that "educational debt is good debt" means that the push is extremely heavy toward STEM. Any whiff of arts/humanities, and the parents (if not the students) run for the hills. And then the students all get burnt out by age 20 and colleges can make an additional killing on "wellness programs" (barf).

I was recently asked if I would teach a fall seminar for first-semester undergraduates at my institution, and I was told point-blank not to put "humanities" or "ethics" in the title because "parents won't let their kids sign up." Meanwhile, the seminar clusters that are currently oversubscribed/need more faculty are Genetics and Genomics, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Global Health. No space for ethics or humanities in those fields, nosirree!

(I am somewhat tetchy about this, because I am the Director of Medical Humanities at my school; what the fuck do you think my academic interest is?)

For me, at least, my academic masters degree was intercalated onto an MD, and that combination has absolutely opened doors for me and landed me a pretty great job. I am not exaggerating when I say that masters saved my career, and I am pretty sure it saved my life as well. But that is a unique case, because my primary "job" is still doctoring, and the masters simply gave me some skills and credentials that a regular MD education did not. I did go into debt for it (not six figures, though), but it was absolutely worth it ... because again, without it, I would no longer be a doctor and I would likely no longer be alive.
posted by basalganglia at 4:52 AM on July 9 [15 favorites]


Tell students to go on Glassdoor, pick the bottom of the displayed salary range for that job, remove 2/3 for rent and student loans, then imagine living on the remainder.
posted by Slackermagee at 5:02 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


I teach first generation college students at a relatively inexpensive 4-year public college. I consider it an important part of my job to tell them not to pay for grad school AND to work my network hard to help them find places in grad school. I've got former students in MS programs at several southeastern flagship universities who are fully funded and doing great. My students' world is just very very different from the world of people paying full price for an MFA in film at Columbia.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:15 AM on July 9 [8 favorites]


I was also mentored by a guy who turned out to be a former East German sleeper agent, which turned out to be educational in its own way.

Hold right up. You put so much on the blue, how is this the first we’re hearing about this!?
posted by mhoye at 5:20 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


If anything, the fact that millennials got screwed by the mantra that "educational debt is good debt" means that the push is extremely heavy toward STEM. Any whiff of arts/humanities, and the parents (if not the students) run for the hills.

I think there may also be a rise in interest in pursuing careers in the trades. Changing the life goal from working for a series of employers to running a successful, say, plumbing company with a bunch of employees and trucks, etc. is gaining traction as a way to prosperity and happiness .
posted by carmicha at 5:26 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


LeRoienJaune: A small tangent: the prevailing theory in political science is that revolutions are correlated to large numbers of unemployed young men.

But there is an alternate theory, known as the 'surplus elite' theory, which is that revolts and civil wars happen when there is specifically a surplus of persons trained but excluded from the elite echelons of the state.


David Graeber also made a pretty good argument for high levels of indebtedness as a driver of revolt, and the burning of debt records as a common goal.
posted by clawsoon at 5:33 AM on July 9 [6 favorites]


Snarl Furillo : On the other hand, master's degrees in the arts at Manhattan universities specifically have been known as financial albatrosses for over 20 years. ... I don't feel that much sympathy for the well-educated people who really should have known better than to play razzle dazzle and expect to win.

Well known to whom? Grant Bromley who worked at a TJ Maxx in Tennessee wasn't in the know. And why would you expect him to be?

People inside the right social circles know all about the missing stair of worthless master's degrees at Manhattan universities, but people who are just entering those circles are going to fall right through.
posted by clawsoon at 5:44 AM on July 9 [12 favorites]


mono blanco: Just as the banks encouraged home buyers to go into debt to buy homes they couldn't afford

Obligatory reminder that it well-off people buying second investment homes who were most likely to default, not subprime borrowers buying their first homes.
posted by clawsoon at 5:48 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Which is obviously bullshit after ten seconds of thought, but the myth is powerful. Why would go $300k into debt for a $30k/year job? Because you'll know all the people you need to know to succeed.

I'm not convinced this is bullshit - at least in some fields. Whenever I read about young people who are successful in New York publishing careers, they definitely seem to come from the Ivies and not from midwestern universities - and I don't think it's because the midwestern universities don't teach skills appropriate for entry level publishing jobs. And I remember reading an infuriating article a few years ago that was something like ten young authors who got their first novels published (so it can happen to you!) - and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM had been in a highly ranked MFA program and had a professor who connected the student with the professor's agent or publisher.

If I had to do it again, I would move heaven and earth to get into a top program. It's possible that would be a huge mistake, but I think in general, Americans who aren't born into the elite world really underestimate how important knowing the "right" people is.
posted by FencingGal at 6:15 AM on July 9 [17 favorites]


Coming from a class bound society I often wonder about whether people meet the right people on elite programmes or is it that some significant fraction of the class were already in the 'elite' and within the group of 'our sort of chap' and thus get ahead anyway. Ie does everyone get a boost or just the fraction of the class already in the know?
posted by biffa at 6:29 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM had been in a highly ranked MFA program and had a professor who connected the student with the professor's agent or publisher. ... but I think in general, Americans who aren't born into the elite world really underestimate how important knowing the "right" people is.

This makes admission to a top MFA program sound like a really expensive lottery ticket. For the low, low price of $100,000+, you get 1 in 10 (1 in 100?) odds of making a good impression on the right people who can make you successful.
posted by clawsoon at 6:30 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


I have a masters in software engineering and I'm not sure it's paid off. I mean I get paid well but I'm pretty sure that's all just because of my experience. I often work next to people with only a BS or even no degree who are presumably paid around the same. It was a rewarding experience and I didn't pay for it myself but I don't think it's really done much for my career.
posted by octothorpe at 6:31 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


First, this is a legitimate place for trustees to step in, ask tough questions, and close or shrink existing and new programs whose graduates are mired in debt they cannot afford.

Aaand that's how we get the recent spate of politically motivated university restructurings to shut down women's and gender studies programs, queer studies programs, programs that have a whiff of critical race theory to uninformed conservative trustees, etc.

The economic argument is always a very thin veneer to hide the politically motivated cuts, whether intentionally so or merely parrotted by those who are not sufficiently familiar with university organizational structures to know better and who hold some of the unconscious biases that the argument dog whistles to:

* It's like arguments that reference voter fraud or welfare fraud in that respect - the thing posited as a problem can't be verified on the relevant scales. Often the numbers of graduates from these programs at any given university aren't a statistically significant sample size to be able to draw any actually statistically accurate conclusions about personal return on investment for students (with some exceptions for particularly well-known and highly rated programs in these areas at large universities). Even when one groups together eg. all arts and humanities programs versus all STEM programs at a given university (so, sufficient aggregation to make statistically valid inferences, but then too much to guide resourcing decisions for specific programs), folks who make this sort of argument seem to tend to use descriptive statistics very naively, eg. just looking at average postgrad salaries and not any measures of spread.

* It's also like "inner city crime" in that the posited causality (in the case of crime statistics, between actual crimes committed and convictions) is highly suspect. The programs that get cut have often been under-resourced for over a decade, so even if one is able to establish a statistically valid correlation between a specific program at a given university and statistically lower postgrad salaries, one still hasn't established that the course of study itself was a causative factor, and not a lack of networking opportunities or resources spent in helping that program's graduates get decent jobs, or externally imposed social/career isolation of program faculty and graduates, etc.; or the fact that university costs are set centrally rather than by program, so students in these programs are often (slightly) subsidizing students in more expensive to run programs.

In summary, speaking as a mathematician whose department is definitely not on any imminent chopping blocks and who would stand to benefit if my university had fewer other programs to spread financial resources around in, this suggestion that university trustees should cut programs based on financial outcomes for program graduates is exceedingly poorly thought-out.
posted by eviemath at 7:20 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


I mean I get paid well but I'm pretty sure that's all just because of my experience.

And earlier, It would be better if these careers actually did pay enough to afford the education because we need people to do these jobs for us.

How much better are these programs making novels and movies? Back when writers and filmmakers didn't go to grad school, there seemed to be some good books and movies.

Speech pathology is somewhat different, but in principle there's no reason this (and many other jobs) couldn't be learned through an apprenticeship. Heck, from what lawyers tell me, a lot of law school could be skipped.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:25 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


I think there may also be a rise in interest in pursuing careers in the trades. Changing the life goal from working for a series of employers to running a successful, say, plumbing company with a bunch of employees and trucks, etc

That's not working in the trades; that's being a capitalist. The employees there are the ones working in the trades.

The problem with the trades is that they burn up your body. I'm a perfesser and while something might happen to me so that I have to stop perfessing before I'm, say, 75 or so, it won't be because of my job. I'm very unlikely to blow up a knee or tear up a rotator cuff or fuck up my back or grind out a hip joint while giving a lecture.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 7:26 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


Coming from a class bound society I often wonder about whether people meet the right people on elite programmes or is it that some significant fraction of the class were already in the 'elite' and within the group of 'our sort of chap' and thus get ahead anyway. Ie does everyone get a boost or just the fraction of the class already in the know?

In my little bit of relevant experience and from what I've since read on the topic, mostly the latter; but there is a bit of a lottery effect that enables a small never of less well-connected students at such schools to realize the benefits of their classmates' connections.
posted by eviemath at 7:32 AM on July 9


This whole "don't go to grad school unless it's paid for" thing isn't very realistic.

My career field - higher ed administration, specifically at a community college - requires graduate degrees to advance. I was not even eligible to apply for the director of admissions position at a tiny community college in Iowa because I do not have a grad degree. (The guy who got the job has a Ed.D. from an R-1 school.) These are generally not the programs that offer assistantships or any support, especially at the under-funded regional public school across town; my institution offers about $1000 annually, at most, for tuition reimbursement. You can use that for your kid OR for yourself, by the way, but not both. A thousand dollars covers about 2 credit hours, maybe less.

So, if I'm interested at all in career advancement at this point in my life - about two decades of working life ahead - I'm going to have to pay out of pocket for my degree. Or, I settle in and just decide I'm good where I am, forever. Or, I somehow switch careers, which - imagine! - would probably require going back to school.
posted by Caxton1476 at 7:33 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Whenever I read about young people who are successful in New York publishing careers, they definitely seem to come from the Ivies and not from midwestern universities - and I don't think it's because the midwestern universities don't teach skills appropriate for entry level publishing jobs.

It's true, but as clawsoon says, it's a lottery, not the price of admission. Going to an Ivy doesn't guarantee an elite position, but not going guarantees you won't get one, and is kind of the nub of the bad decision making going on. It's not even that crazy a bad decision to make. "Sure I'll have to beat a bunch of my classmates to the elite positions, but half of them are legacies who aren't even trying hard, and you need to get into the arena to win the fight blahblahblah"

I mean I get paid well but I'm pretty sure that's all just because of my experience.

I virtually guarantee this is true. I work for a digital services agency and have been involved in every dev hire for the last five years; moreover, I have line-of-sight into our large clients and their ability (or lack thereof) to staff themselves, leading them to beg us to find some more people. Where software is concerned, it's a candidate's market even down to grotty Fortune 100s and governments. Competent people who can get something done need to aggressively fuck up repeatedly to lose their jobs or not get promoted. A recognized degree from a decent university tells us something about new graduates, but once you've got a couple years experience, the university itself drops off the radar. My degrees are a BFA in printmaking and drawing, and an Honours degree in philosophy. It's a joke in our office that the UX department has more compsci degrees than our dev group.

Maybe this is unique to software, but the state of the field now seems to me to be one where actually being able to do software engineering in a work environment is completely unknown until you've got about five years in the field. I work with some people with 20 years experience who can't do shit--literally, they're morons that simply don't understand what they're doing, and depend on colleagues to lay out endless roadmaps for what they need to do--but their employment is secure at any organization larger than a couple hundred, because a mediocre coder who can be led by the nose to something that'll deploy is still more valuable than the unknown of a new hire that you'll have trouble finding anyway.

If someone showed up on our door with an Ivy degree in tech and expected us to care about that, it would probably be a strike against them for thinking their pedigree mattered at all to us.
posted by fatbird at 7:36 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


I also want to highlight what automatronic said: education is often a more distributed social good, and thinking about it purely in terms of ROI for individual students - and, correspondingly, placing the majority of the cost on individual students - is poor framing. The answer to this problem if students in elite US institutions taking on more education debt than they can possibly repay in their lifetimes doesn't involve the postgraduate career options or choices of the students (though all jobs should pay a comfortable living wage), it involves not putting the costs of education on individual students in the first place.
posted by eviemath at 7:39 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


eviemath: yes!!!

Tressie McMillan Cottom has been tweeting about this article: "When I talked with elite uni presidents and administrators, they weren’t so much dismayed by what I detailed in #LowerEd as much as they were interested in HOW THEY COULD COPY THEIR SUCCESS. Masters degrees decreased regulatory risk, increased revenue, & made for pretty charts" & "The pull of elitism was and is too strong to admit that selective schools are absolutely complicit in profit-seeking commodification of inequality through credential schemes."

Also: there is a really predatory program at an elite institution that McMillan Cottom, and Anne Helen Petersen, want to expose.
brainwane: I was also mentored by a guy who turned out to be a former East German sleeper agent, which turned out to be educational in its own way.

mhoye: Hold right up. You put so much on the blue, how is this the first we’re hearing about this!
I guess it never came up before? Anyway this thread is kind of fast-moving and people want to talk about educational systems and their own careers and debt and stuff like that so I don't want to derail it; if you make a front-page post about, like, sleeper agents, or spycraft, or cybersecurity in telecoms or the energy industry, ping me and I'll talk more there.
posted by brainwane at 7:59 AM on July 9 [17 favorites]


But there is an alternate theory, known as the 'surplus elite' theory, which is that revolts and civil wars happen when there is specifically a surplus of persons trained but excluded from the elite echelons of the state. Men like Vladimir Ulyanov (paralegal), Mao Tse Tung (research librarian), Che Guevara (Med student).

Ok, but how does one explain Jan 6? The most motivated are the average, enjoying substantial benefits of privilege, yet feel victimized and excluded, despite their comfort? Thank dog they are, in fact, as average as they are.


It explains the events of the 6th of Jan quite well. After all, that didn't ultimately go anywhere, at least partially because it attracted insufficient elite/counter-elite support.

The Peter Turchin version of elite over production says that wide-scale disorder of the type that leads to nation states falling requires all of:

-Mass immiseration
-State failure
-Elite overproduction, leading to a group of people who have the training, connections, and expectations of the elite and who often *almost* make it but who don't achieve the social position they think is their due. The most extreme examples of this kind of elite outsider are Trump, Bannon, and that lot. Obviously they are part of a financial elite but they were never quite the thing.

So the theory goes, a counter-elite group (think: colonels rather than generals) takes advantage of their organisational abilities and their status as simultaneously sufficiently elite to be credible rallying points and sufficiently outsider to not be "one of them" to rally the masses at a time when the state doesn't seem to be functioning.

Imagine a counterfactual 6th of Jan where Trump was actively attempting a coup rather than incompetently allowing violence to go on in his name and where he had a few thousand elite/counter-elite supporters positioned throughout the civil service and senior ranks of the military. It was always the Trumpists lack of senior people who really believed in the mission (because there wasn't one) to fill the 4,000 or so presidential appointee positions that stopped them from achieving whatever their policy goals might have been. As a result, they would do things like draft "Muslim bans" in ways that got them blocked by the courts. Let's be clear, a competent but equally malignant group of people could have achieved those aims easily. Whole swathes of US immigration law "just happen" to lead to conditions which make it much harder to enter from some countries than others.

In my little bit of relevant experience and from what I've since read on the topic, mostly the latter; but there is a bit of a lottery effect that enables a small never of less well-connected students at such schools to realize the benefits of their classmates' connections

Also effectively keeping the entire elite's belief in its own right to rule strong - "Yes, my dad was a wall street banker and my uncle is a federal judge but one of the guys in my class was a first generation student and his dad was a farm labourer so therefore we've competed on a level playing field" *and* diverting people who would otherwise be likely leaders of the poorest strata of society into the American elite where they are safely sent to price derivatives.
posted by atrazine at 8:01 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


This is why government cancellation of student debt by executive order can and should happen ASAP.

Women, people of color, and the poor are disproportionately burdened, and it's absolutely needless.
posted by Gadarene at 8:01 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


People inside the right social circles know all about the missing stair of worthless master's degrees at Manhattan universities, but people who are just entering those circles are going to fall right through.

This makes so. Much. Sense. Higher ed skipped a generation in my family (my mother's father had a degree, I think; my mother and father did not). I got myself into an Ivy and attended because I had something to prove to myself and people around me, not because I had a concrete goal I thought it would enable. Looking back on it, I missed so many networking opportunities, which were the whole point. I'm sure having the school's name on my resume has opened some doors quietly, but the only overt thing it's ever done for me was cause two film producers you've heard of to be really excited when I showed up at a birthday party in LA, since they hadn't seen me since we made films together in college. I know other people around me got a big bump out of network effects, and I wish I'd known that.
posted by Alterscape at 8:01 AM on July 9 [11 favorites]


education is often a more distributed social good,

A great argument for free high school, community college, and subsidized 4-year college. I'm just not seeing the great social good from sending people to many years in graduate film school, though I'd be open to considering additional direct arts funding.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:17 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


Mr.Know-it-some: you may be interested in this piece by Daniel Davies, though it's UK-centric:
The thing about the arts industries is that they’re very hits-driven; talking about what happens to the median person going into them is always going to massively underestimate the value of the system as a whole. They share this characteristic with pharmaceuticals and, famously, the oil industry (as the wildcatter proverb has it, “part of the cost of a gusher is the dry holes you drilled”). You can’t tell ex ante which spotty undergraduate is going to turn into a claymation genius and retrospectively justify the last decade of investment.
posted by brainwane at 8:32 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


That still doesn’t rule out the subsidized art film/regional theater/apprenticeship model in favor of the Higher Ed model, though. Whichever gets more people interested in making films making more kinds of films.
posted by clew at 9:23 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


I’m dubious of unrestricted public funding for anything formed like education because it is such an opportunity for graft on the part of the institutions. Australia’s system seems to cap institutional income too? Or move it to explicit subsidy, eg grants for equipment or projects?
posted by clew at 9:27 AM on July 9


All I can say about this topic is that someone close to me is pursuing a master's degree in Instructional Design, and as part of that took a course on web design. It was basically a series of lectures following someone who was using Dreamweaver to build a portfolio site. This is in a program from one of the largest, well-respected universities in the state.

I haven't seen anyone use Dreamweaver in a professional context in my two decades of IT experience, and after trying to help them fix their broken site, I understood why. I ended up teaching them the basics of editing source code because that was easier than getting Dreamweaver to work in a predictable way.

I hope my experience is a crazy outlier and not the norm. I can't imagine going into debt for training that has zero real world value.
posted by nicoffeine at 9:43 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


A great argument for free high school, community college, and subsidized 4-year college. I'm just not seeing the great social good from sending people to many years in graduate film school

And I don't personally see a great deal of social good coming out of MBA programs, though they sure seem to get people higher-paying jobs. I don't think I should be deciding what studies are worthwhile and what aren't, though.

There's a social good to letting people study what they choose to. Nobody is "sending" anyone to study something they don't want to learn.
posted by automatronic at 9:44 AM on July 9 [9 favorites]


From TFA:
Julie Kornfeld, Columbia’s vice provost for academic programs, said master’s degrees “can and should be a revenue source” subsidizing other parts of the university. She also said grad students need more financial support.
They are basically announcing they are milking their grad students. If the alumni were all happy with the cost/benefit trade offs it would be win-win, but this is clearly not the case.

Asking for government subsidies to encourage more students to go into debt for a profitable part of the university is insane. It's the craziest way of trying fund the rest of the university--it's like giving broke students money so they can act as financiers for rich universities, then trying to claw the money back from them.
posted by mark k at 9:50 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


Julie Kornfeld, Columbia’s vice provost for academic programs, said master’s degrees “can and should be a revenue source” subsidizing other parts of the university.

So grad school is like an athletic program, with a similar (small) rate of people going on from there to lucrative careers?
posted by clawsoon at 9:55 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


There's a social good to letting people study what they choose to.

That needs sharpening. It is absolutely possible for (metafilter-tuned example) a society to have too many MBAs and not enough GPs, for instance, because that looked like a more appealing gamble to too many students. Balancing the advantages to individuals, individual freedom, and social advantage vs individual and social cost is really hard. It’s a game theory problem that turns up in creatures down to slime molds, if not even simpler ones.
posted by clew at 9:57 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


There's a social good to letting people study what they choose to. Nobody is "sending" anyone to study something they don't want to learn.

We are talking elite masters' degrees here.

I admit to being inherently distrustful of elite colleges (public school grad that I am) but the "social good" argument is IMHO quite weak in this particular case. People are going in and hoping to use the credentials and prestige to grab a slot in some industry that would otherwise go to someone who didn't go $300k in debt. It's close to a zero sum game.

Part of the scam that's being run here is universities playing simultaneously on the "joy of learning" axis to and the "prestige degree gets you into the upper class" axis. The second one lets them extract far more from students than makes sense. The first one lets them capture government subsidies and gets a lot of people making excuses for their behavior, even as many students who studied what they chose to feel pretty ripped off.

There's inherently a trade off here. Funding going to this purpose is not going to other educational purposes--undergrad, non-degree programs, community colleges, distributed arts centers, etc.
posted by mark k at 10:02 AM on July 9 [5 favorites]


There's a social good to letting people study what they choose to.

Sure—if they know what they're doing and have a clear idea of what it will mean financially, for the rest of their lives. I don't think that's the case with a lot of these expensive programs.

At the very least, there should be some sort of Monroney Sticker law for colleges and university programs, given to students far in advance of signing their lives away with huge non-dischargeable loans.

If you look at the cost of a film degree from Columbia, or any of the tech-du-jour programs from for-profit schools (which is probably the more common scenario), and the expected salary you'll likely have at the end of it, and decide "yup, that's what I want to do", well, then, go for it. I'm not in favor of telling people they can't spend their money on something purely because it has poor financial ROI; as others have pointed out, there is value to education beyond future salary.

But: I seriously question how many people would still sign up for these programs if they had a good idea of what was waiting for them at the other end.

I could have easily fallen into that trap myself after college; lots of my undergrad peers went directly into masters' programs, just sort of following the academic current. I only didn't because I was really sick of "school" at the time and decided to take a break—in retrospect I think it was a bullet dodged, but not one I can really take credit for. And I really wonder how many of those folks would have made the same decision, if someone had laid out clearly what the long-term financial impact of post-baccalaureate education was going to be? Not just the debt load and the upfront cost of the programs, but the opportunity cost as well.

It's crazy to realize that the entire life that I've built, including buying a house, would have been impossible if I'd followed my very-well-meaning academic advisor's guidance and gone all-in for a masters' or PhD program right after undergrad. In retrospect, their advice was even more out of touch with reality than my Boomer parents were.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:22 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


So grad school is like an athletic program, with a similar (small) rate of people going on from there to lucrative careers?

I was just thinking that the chance of becoming successful in the arts is not unlike that of becoming a successful professional athlete. I did have a student who had to bail on his professional sports plans because of a career-ending injury. He had been a minor league ballplayer, and was going back to college because it blew up in his face. Someone who knows more can correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that players in the minor leagues make truly horrible wages with no job security as well as the risk of injury - but at least they aren't going into six-figure debt in their efforts to make it in sports.

Of course, it's probably easier to find out in high school or college that you aren't actually the next Michael Jordan, whereas you could be considered the worst student in your MFA program, hated by all the professors, and still become a successful artist. So it's harder to punch holes in that particular delusion - or even really say that it's a delusion. You don't even have to be good at writing to find readers and make a lot of money, but it's very unpredictable.

And the number of people who want to be artists is very different from the number of successful artists (which I'll define here as making a living from art) that a society can realistically support. I also don't want to tell people not to study whatever they want to study, but there are a lot of factors that make it very hard to go into this situation with your eyes truly open. And if you're at this level and want to make a career in the arts, you probably can also recite a million stories about great artists who were not appreciated in their time - so people just not liking your art is not a deterrent.

And there's also the increase in "follow your passion" gurus, which results in a whole lot of people thinking they aren't living full lives if they aren't in careers that support their dreams.
posted by FencingGal at 10:41 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Speech pathology is somewhat different, but in principle there's no reason this (and many other jobs) couldn't be learned through an apprenticeship

For most of the medical/healthy sciences masters/doctoral programs, you'll have a year of supervised work (sometimes you get paid for it, not always). And usually you'll have clinic time in conjunction with your classes. So there's a hands on component in the education already.

So if we switch to an apprenticeship model, when would the apprenticeship take place? Post bachelor degree? In tandem with one?

Students also take work and time. Even with an academic institution providing the initial classroom and on-hand training in their own clinic, it can be hard to find placements for people now. And those willing to take on students may practice a small subsection of the scope of practice. So multiple apprenticeships would be required and they may be hard to find.

Which isn't to say that the cost of these programs to the students relative to their expected salaries isn't out of whack or that training can't be improved.

But the article seems to be lumping together a few kinds of graduate degrees, and the reasons for their costs will vary (although money grab will probably play some role in there, as with everything else in our society).

I have many other thoughts about health sciences education, tuition, salaries, licensing, corporations, and costs to patient/access to services. But they're all jumbled and only tangently related at this point.
posted by ghost phoneme at 10:54 AM on July 9 [2 favorites]


they also aren't obliged to believe every bit of nonsense that comes out of their parents' faces; most kids don't. but that is another issue entirely.

LOL trust no one, kids, not even your family, come out of that womb armed and fighting and maybe you, too, will avoid being crushed by capitalism.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:00 AM on July 9 [14 favorites]


So grad school is like an athletic program, with a similar (small) rate of people going on from there to lucrative careers?

I think this depends on the field. There are fields where having a masters will absolutely provide a boost. But there are a number that won't. Before paying for grad school I think it is best to work in the field a few years so you can get a feel for how much the degree matters. That is not the message many undergrads get at the end of getting their bachelors, though.
posted by schroedinger at 11:05 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]


Coming from the Wall Street Journal, especially, it seems like deliberate culture-war stoking. “Personal responsibility” Republicans get to dunk on people who made “bad choices” while also hating the arts

Can we tackle actual problems without worrying about what the right wing thinks? They're assholes and will think the worst and can't be convinced to do the right thing. Ok now what do we actually do about this?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:22 AM on July 9 [7 favorites]


I think a lot of people who go into these programs don't do so because they don't know that the odds are stacked against them.

I got my library science degree because I graduated with a B.A. in Linguistics and without any network or any clue how to turn a relatively impractical B.A. into an actual career. Many years later, when I was in a (fully funded!) MFA program, I think a lot of my classmates were in the same spot - you weren't prescient enough to have majored in business or computer science, you have no idea how to get onto the first rungs of a career ladder, so you do whatever looks like a way forward.

I felt trapped by the time I started applying for MFA programs. My salary was going up more slowly than the cost of living, I had a landlord who didn't provide adequate hot water or pest control, I applied for every library job I could find that looked vaguely OK and didn't get any of them despite 7+ years of experience as a librarian.

Lots of us make bad choices when we can't figure out any good ones.
posted by Jeanne at 11:26 AM on July 9 [10 favorites]


(None of which is to suggest that universities SHOULDN'T bear their full share of responsibility for not being honest with students about their career prospects.)
posted by Jeanne at 11:27 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]


It's crazy to realize that the entire life that I've built, including buying a house, would have been impossible if I'd followed my very-well-meaning academic advisor's guidance and gone all-in for a masters' or PhD program right after undergrad. In retrospect, their advice was even more out of touch with reality than my Boomer parents were.

This, except reversed. My parents weren't exactly shoving me into the workforce, but they suggested that if I didn't know what I wanted to do then I might as well continue school. They had degrees from humbler institutions that opened up a world of economic opportunity for them, and as a result felt that education was never really wasted. It's a wonderful sentiment that just really underrates how expensive these things are now. There are very few degrees in the world worth going $300K into debt for.

I was lucky to have an academic adviser (who was also serving as an academic dean) who told me that I shouldn't do it unless I really wanted to do it, and also that I shouldn't do it. Once I told my parents that I didn't think a master's degree would be worth the cost, they started pushing me toward law school as a more practical alternative. For all of undergrad, if you asked me, I would've told you that going to law school was the most practical and safe way for someone like me (a squeamish person who likes to read) to make a good living. I was then, uh, lucky that the economy then tanked so hard it became clear that the glut of law schools was a scam in its own right. I don't know if/when the job market for lawyers recovered, but most of the people I know who went to law school did not end up practicing law! They found other jobs, and to this day rue the years lost and $15-60K debt that they assumed for no gain. (The ones who did end up practicing law -- one works for the state, and the other TWO married into regional gentry and networked easily from there.)

So I don't know. Once I start looking at this a con job -- truly cynical and depressing of me -- I start to think that it was mostly luck that kept me clear of the scam. I've always known not to bother with for-profit universities and to avoid laying down $300K on cinematic arts, but if my parents were slightly richer then I would've been a prime target for that University of Chicago program everyone is carefully talking around on Twitter, and I know several people who fell into the "trap" of entering a legal job market flush with competition. A university that sells you a good education is not a scam, exactly, but if you've bought it with the assumption that it will eventually pay for itself you might have reason to feel scammed. (And more importantly, you'll be hugely in debt for the rest of your life.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 11:38 AM on July 9 [13 favorites]


That regional gentry article is great, grandiloquiet. Thanks for posting it.
posted by clawsoon at 11:57 AM on July 9 [4 favorites]


Can we tackle actual problems without worrying about what the right wing thinks?

It's not so much a question of trying to appeal to them as of being wary when you find them in the vicinity of your "side," as any solutions they propose will be to forward their ends, not yours.
posted by praemunire at 12:02 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


My career field - higher ed administration, specifically at a community college - requires graduate degrees to advance.

Yup. I'm in higher ed administration as well (albeit at a flagship state school). If you meet someone at director level or above who doesn't have a graduate degree, he is almost certainly old enough to remember the moon landing (and it is almost certainly a "he"). Those guys got on the ladder when anyone with a bachelor's (and a Y chromosome) was presumed competent to climb all the way to the top. Many of them read and heed WSJ. Many are good-hearted people. Few have kept their skills current.

I was relatively lucky in that my particular "elite master's" program was half-subsidized because I worked for the same school that administered it. I was also in my mid-30s when I started, and I knew the remainder would be in loans, and that the loans would be a hustle. I also knew that I would need those additional letters after my name to advance within the university's career structure.

I also knew I needed to stay at the university until my husband finishes his education, since there's no way we could afford to continue that without my staff discount.

The degree ultimately did help -- I moved up a whole paygrade some months after graduation, and can now afford the monthly loan payment.

Every spring, around Giving Tuesday, I get a barrage of emails about donating to the university -- dozens over the course of the week, in triplicate, as an undergrad alumna, graduate alumna, and an employee. One of these days I'm going to make a drinking game out of it.
posted by armeowda at 12:06 PM on July 9 [2 favorites]




Admittedly have skimmed, so apologies if this has already been drummed, but this is a huge problem for education degrees. Not all, but many, states in the US require you to get a Masters degree to get any sort of teaching licensure, or at least, the licensure courses you have to take add up to about the same time it'd take to get a Masters. And really, the states that don't require a Masters...they probably should.

The US is begging for teachers, SLPs, and school psychologists, but you only "need" a Masters to practice those, but only the PhDs are funded. And sure, some states pay decently once you get the degree, but still not enough to justify 20k if not more in student loans. At a state school.
posted by nakedmolerats at 1:28 PM on July 9 [7 favorites]


Columbia's MFA in film sounds like a shit show.

Worth reading that thread to the end...
posted by atrazine at 1:45 PM on July 9 [12 favorites]


College professor here, at a no-name public mid-tier school. We're cheap, at least, which I always tell my students is important. But master's degrees, even at a cheap school, are cash cows, as many folks have mentioned.

Lots of students love school, and that's one reason they go for graduate degrees. Finding a decent job is hard and scary in our country. When a student comes in my office telling me they want to go to grad school, I tell them not to, and I do my best to talk them out of it. Every time. Even if it's a great student. Most people shouldn't go to grad school right out of college. Most people shouldn't go to grad school unless they are absolutely sure what they want to do. And if they decide they should go, they should pick the cheapest option possible.

These faculty members at Columbia ought to be ashamed of themselves. But they're the elite, and they won't be.
posted by merrill at 3:13 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


Master degree programmes are mainly to the benefit of the course designer and the professors who work inside them, to use their pull power to move up hire chains that get them more and more reliable work. I remember when I did my MA, waiting for office hours while my head tutor was on the other side of the door complaining to his brother about how he only had eight students and needed 16 to get a guaranteed bonus, and how uncomfortable he was about how little money he was earning.
posted by parmanparman at 3:23 PM on July 9 [1 favorite]


We're cheap, at least

It's difficult to believe you haven't been seconded to marketing.
posted by biffa at 4:33 PM on July 9 [3 favorites]


@latkes: Just read the same thread you linked to and my god, it is a must-read. The whole thing, including the Chair offering the now successful Stoteraux a degree if he'll help the Chair get their pilot episode made.

I think this crystallizes for me the extent to which the film program, at least, is a trade school. Which is fine! But it should be evaluated like a trade school, not as if it is a primarily scholarly endeavor.
posted by mark k at 10:20 PM on July 9 [8 favorites]


the subsidized art film/regional theater/apprenticeship model

would also be an example of public funding of education. "Education" doesn't just mean the current higher ed system exactly as it exists in the US right now. (Or even formal schooling or apprenticeship systems in general, though I imagine anything receiving public funding will have to be formalized in some manner.)

We are talking elite masters' degrees here.

The comments to which I was replying did not appear to be restricted in this manner; and the comment this is replying to seems to be based on my comment, so is likely also intended to be more general?
posted by eviemath at 11:29 PM on July 9


Just putting it out there that Maciej attended Middlebury College. I always ascribed his insights and writing ability to the solid liberal arts program he would have received there, but then I've been wrong before.
posted by morspin at 1:44 PM on July 10


This makes admission to a top MFA program sound like a really expensive lottery ticket. For the low, low price of $100,000+, you get 1 in 10 (1 in 100?) odds of making a good impression on the right people who can make you successful.

Or a not-really-expensive lottery ticket. Remember, a lot of top MFA degrees are fully funded. Mine was (Johns Hopkins.) At the University of Wisconsin, where I teach now (not in the MFA program) all of our MFA students are fully funded. It seems pretty important not to take "what several programs at Columbia do" as a good measure of "what higher education does." Especially when the original article comes out and tells you that they picked the most outlandishly extreme example in the country to focus on.
posted by escabeche at 7:39 PM on July 10 [3 favorites]


That Colombia MFA program thread...jesus christ! And there's a horrifying addendum about sexual harassment in the theater program: "with [the head of the Theater MFA program] demanding actresses strip naked & perform for him."
posted by MiraK at 10:41 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


That regional gentry article is great, grandiloquiet. Thanks for posting it.
It really was! That's an underlisted and under-appreciated class in the US. Probably deserves its own main post. I'm not sure I agree they are quite so disconnected/disentangled with the billionaire class though, but that's a really small quibble.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:35 PM on July 12


that University of Chicago program everyone is carefully talking around on Twitter

So if I understand correctly from the gossip I gathered around replies to Anne Helen Petersen on Twitter, the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at University of Chicago is an expensive one-year master's that actively recruits candidates who have been rejected from doctoral programs, promising them that it can help them become stronger candidates for future doctoral program applications. And it's very expensive, and U of Chicago depends on that income to subsidize its other programs, and the courses you take are with undergrads rather than courses for graduate students, and it is unlikely to actually help you become a stronger candidate for PhD programs.

I think I don't quite understand why people are a bit more wary of actively saying all of this than they are of talking about, for instance, the Columbia programs mentioned in the WSJ article. Is it because anyone who did this program is caught up in academic incentives and political reasons not to criticize U of Chicago? Is U of Chicago well-known for holding a grudge against people who criticize the institution? Of course if you can't talk about it here publicly I am interested in hearing via MeMail.
posted by brainwane at 10:57 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


Is it because anyone who did this program is caught up in academic incentives and political reasons not to criticize U of Chicago? Is U of Chicago well-known for holding a grudge against people who criticize the institution? Of course if you can't talk about it here publicly I am interested in hearing via MeMail.

I'm a graduate of its sister program, the Master of Arts Program in Social Sciences (MAPSS), which is structured very similarly to MAPH. I think MAPH probably has a worse reputation because getting a humanities degree is even harder to justify against the price tag than even social sciences, so I'm not sure if my perspective fully applies, but:

I think people are maybe less vocal about UChicago, as the program is not quite as exploitative, or at least it's kind of a mixed bag. What they promise candidates is a lot more modest: better chances at getting into a desired PhD program, or at least an academia-adjacent job if the coursework helps you realize academia is not for you. There's no dangled prospect of becoming a rich and famous writer that is the appeal of many MFA programs. Schools like Chicago play very hard into the monastic "life of the mind" aspirations of many very driven, philosopher-minded students.

Nearly every one in my cohort now (including myself) is either in academia or working at a nonprofit/ad agency/think tank/whatever, and quite a few talk about how attending the program was intellectually influential and rigorous. That doesn't change the fact that we're all in massive boat-loads of debt over it, and left forever wondering if we could have achieved the same results while skipping the pricey Master's degree.
posted by adso at 2:32 PM on July 13 [3 favorites]


From Slate, in response to / directly referencing the WSJ article: Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education

(Spoiler alert: For-profit colleges selling 1-year career certificates to highschool grads are #1.)

But graduate programs have become a cash cow for universities:
If you are an undergraduate, you can only borrow a certain amount of money from the federal government to go to get a bachelor’s degree, and that’s very specifically because they don’t want people to overborrow. In graduate school, you can borrow not only the full cost of tuition, but also room, board, living expenses [...] you’re essentially creating an unlimited spigot of money that can be used to fund graduate programs, which just creates an enormous moral hazard for colleges and universities when it comes to creating these programs.
Also, something I was unaware of (if not exactly surprised by) related to all the new "online masters" programs springing up everywhere:
These companies [online program managers like 2U] design and operate courses on behalf of schools—sometimes essentially offering a class in a box—that the university can slap its branding on. The OPM then takes as much as 70 percent of tuition revenue. That money is largely being funded with government loans, which may never be paid back.
In other news, online program manager 2U just bought edX, the massive open online course (MOOC) provider originally created by Harvard and MIT to democratize learning.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:11 PM on July 20




A professor floated the idea of me going to a MA program like that, at Tufts, for philosophy, about 25 years ago. It was $20,000 tuition then. Maybe aid for half of that. I didn't find that borrowing $10k for tuition plus whatever for living in Boston for a year to have much appeal. I became a code monkey instead. That hurt. A lot. Maybe it was the wrong choice in some ways, but economically, almost surely the right one.
posted by thelonius at 1:28 PM on July 24


Oh, looks like Petersen is going to subdivide different appeals of postgraduate work (and their respective failures ). That seems useful and also in her wheelhouse.
posted by clew at 2:48 PM on July 24


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