Is college oversold? (5×8 – 11/3/11)

The case for college, you should meet Harriet Peterson, Minnesota girls are not for sale, the post-Vikings world examined, and a ride on the space station.


Are students studying the right subjects in college? Alex Tabbarok, who blogs at Marginal Revolution, stirs the Occupy pot (he objects to demands for forgiveness of student loans) by analyzing the area of concentration of graduates:

Consider computer technology. In 2009 the U.S. graduated 37,994 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science. This is not bad, but we graduated more students with computer science degrees 25 years ago! The story is the same in other technology fields such as chemical engineering, math and statistics. Few fields have changed as much in recent years as microbiology, but in 2009 we graduated just 2,480 students with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology — about the same number as 25 years ago. Who will solve the problem of antibiotic resistance?

What are they studying? Performance arts, psychology and, ummmm, journalism…

There is nothing wrong with the arts, psychology and journalism, but graduates in these fields have lower wages and are less likely to find work in their fields than graduates in science and math. Moreover, more than half of all humanities graduates end up in jobs that don’t require college degrees and these graduates don’t get a big college bonus.

Most importantly, graduates in the arts, psychology and journalism are less likely to create the kinds of innovations that drive economic growth. Economic growth is not a magic totem to which all else must bow, but it is one of the main reasons we subsidize higher education.

He argues that college can and should be subsidized for students studying the sciences, for example, but says “there is little justification for subsidizing sociology, dance and English majors.”

Discuss: Is college oversold?

Related: Community colleges: Not just for poorer kids anymore (Washington Post)


harriet_peterson.jpgSomewhere in Falcon Heights, a just-married young couple (shown in the picture) — veterans of the wars — are moving into the home that a just-married young couple, one a returning soldier in World War II, moved into 51 years ago.

Harriet Peterson, also seen in the picture, was half of the couple. She turned 99 in August and has moved into an assisted living center in Roseville. I visited her yesterday at the suggestion of Jennifer Larsen, who nominated her as part of News Cut’s “the people you should meet” series.

“She has defied so many conventions over the years, including motherhood in her 30s,” Jennifer said. She met Harriet as part of a block nurse program several years ago.

We chatted primarily about her upbringing in Thief River Falls. “We never knew depression,” she said, “because there were a lot of railroad people there. Between the railroad and the farming community, there was always something. It was wonderful. Everyone was the same — the doctors, the lawyers, the merchants — they were all the same.”

Her father was a locomotive engineer on the Soo Line. “He would have loved being a scholar and a teacher. He had his own den full of law books and political writings and when he was on the school board, he was instrumental in upping the salaries of the teachers. He thought education was so important and he said to his children, ‘you are all to have a college education.'”

“He would gather reading material and the kids would wait for dad to come by in the train and he’d throw them the reading material.”

Harriet became a scholar and a teacher; she double majored in physical education, English and theater at the University of North Dakota and taught in Thief River Falls despite her dad’s insistence that there’d be no nepotism in the town. He was on the school board.

After waiting for four years for her fiancee to return from the war, she and Hilding Peterson married and eventually he became a professor at Macalester College.

He was hockey player in his day, she was an athletic sort and loved to skate and together they did, well into her ’80s until he could no longer keep up.

She and her husband raised a family in a house in Falcon Heights in which another couple will now do the same.

That couple just wrote her a letter introducing themselves to the woman who once owned their new home. She’ll write back, she says, as soon as she figures out what she wants to say.

“I suppose when you turn 100, everyone will want to ask you the secret of life and longevity,” I said.

“I don’t really know,” she said. “I need more time to think about it.”


The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has launched a campaign to end sex trafficking in Minnesota. It says a recent study in the state found that on any given night, “45 girls under age 18 are sold for sex through the internet classified websites and escort services.”

(h/t: Bonnie Russ)


While Europe and the rest of the world grapples with the future of the Greek economy, it’ll be another day of hand-wringing in Minnesota over the future of NFL football. The Vikings are pointing out that the lease at the Metrodome will expire before the Legislature (maybe) takes up the issue in 2012, a none-too-subtle threat to move to another city if taxpayers don’t pony up the money for a new stadium. GOP lawmakers aren’t impressed and say there’s no appetite for a special session.

Bob Sansevere in the Pioneer Press is taking a past-tense view of the issue…

Well, Minnesota could get an expansion team, as Cleveland did after the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. Of course, that could take a decade or more, or it might never happen. When you factor in the cost of a new stadium and an expansion fee in the hundreds of millions, it would cost considerably more than the $1.1 billion price tag for a new stadium. Also, it’s unlikely there’s anyone in the state with the kind of money or the inclination it would take to buy an expansion team. If there were, the Vikings wouldn’t be owned by a guy from New Jersey.

That hints at the next issue to be determined — should the Vikings organization be required to leave their name and team colors behind when they head for greener — get it? — pastures? The Cleveland Browns, for example, left the name and the colors behind — under league orders — when they moved to Baltimore.

Meanwhile at the Daily Norseman, Christopher Gates riffs on Sansevere’s suggestion people root for the Packers in the post-Vikings world:

But, as this situation has gone on, my views on it have changed. When the spectre of the Vikings possibly relocating was first raised, I immediately took the stance that I would be basically finished with the National Football League if the Vikings were to leave Minnesota. However, as this whole situation has played itself out, I’ve come more and more to the realization that the Vikings aren’t the problem in this equation. Zygi Wilf (and even Red McCombs before him) have done everything the Minnesota government has asked them to do for the last decade.

Get in line behind the Twins? Okay, they did that.

Get in line behind the Gophers? Ummmmm, sure, they did that for some reason, too.

Find a willing local partner? Yeah, they’ve done that with Ramsey County/Arden Hills.

Increase their contribution to the project? They’ve done so at least once that we know of, and possibly more times that we don’t.

But that’s still not good enough for the state of Minnesota. Every time the Vikings appear to be on the verge of crossing the goal line, somebody moves the goal posts.

Gates says he would move from the state if the Vikings move.


NASA has just released a sped-up video of what the space station crew looks at hour after hour…

In the first sequence of images, recorded on October 15, the space station orbits above the cloud covered North Atlantic Ocean toward Europe. Tracking southeast, the first view of lights comes from the United Kingdom, with cities like Liverpool and London identifiable by the congestion of city lights.

Across the English Channel, the cities of Brussels and Rotterdam (left) and Paris all stand out amid a network of smaller cities in Western Europe.

The pass continues over the snow-covered Alps and to the Italian Peninsula, where lightning storms cover the southern half of the peninsula. The ISS then tracks over the Mediterranean Sea, with Greece to the left of track, northern Africa right of track, and the island of Crete. Finally, the pass finishes near the Nile River Delta and the Red Sea.

Bonus: First flight in an electric multi-copter. Try not to get hit by a propeller.


Developments in the debate over a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings are coming fast. GOP leaders are calling for open hearings to let citizens express their views on public financing for a stadium. Today’s Question: How much of a role do you think public opinion will play in the stadium decision?


Voters in 126 Minnesota school districts will see tax questions on the ballot next Tuesday. The Big Story Blog will survey the landscape for school levies across the state.


Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: For decades research has told us that teens do what they do because their brains don’t work like adult brains. New research is telling us more about the differences between adults and teens. What does the new research tell us? How does it help us relate to the teens in our lives? And how does it affect policies in the juvenile justice and social service systems?

Second hour: A month after the Minnesota Lynx brought home the WNBA championship trophy, the University of Minnesota is hosting a national conference on the state of women and sports. We’ll hear from experts in the field on how sports is changing women’s lives and practices that continue to hold women back in the field.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Kent Pekel, of the University of Minnesota, discusses the national “report cards” on math and reading.

Second hour: New documentary from America Abroad: “The Politics of Faith: The Role of Religion in Divided Societies.”

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: Curbing violent crime, without jail time.

Second hour: The best American sportswriting of 2011.

  • Dan

    It’s all just talk from the Vikings. Where are they going to move to? LA doesn’t have a stadium and probably won’t any time soon. Call the Vikings’ bluff and wait and see if they are more reasonable during next year’s session.

  • Why do we need professional sports at all? I don’t care.

  • Re #1: I think we need to dig deeper- why are more people choosing the non-math and science paths? Are we making sure that middle and high school students are being exposed to the sciences in a way that makes them seem interesting and exciting?

    As schools cut further and further back on budgets, lab time is usually cut which is really unfortunate. Nothing gets high school students more excited about science than watching a banana frozen solid in 5 seconds or something blowing up.

    I also wonder how much of the lack of interest comes from teachers losing the ability to teach to students and just being force to teach to a test. Not only is this draining on the student, but I have to imagine it is draining on the teacher as well – not having the ability to be creative with a classroom. With so much focus on what NCLB and other laws say about test scores, do we leave enough time in the day to make sure classes can be interesting? (Yes, math class can be fun)

  • John O.

    #1) My spouse was one of those Computer Science graduates from 25 years ago and ended up working many years for a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Her job (and those of virtually all of her former colleagues in MSP) were eliminated here.

    Software support phone calls to her former company are now frequently answered by “Bob” in Bangalore.

  • jon

    25 years ago computer science was the only computer related degree… now there is computer engineering, systems engineering, software engineer… etc. Did they take that into account in their research?

    IT is a dangerous place to be in the states… Math Science, are all going over sea’s… and when you ask why, the answer is “Cost”… part of the reason comp sci. folks want to get paid so much is cause they’ve basically payed as much for their education as their parents paid for their houses a generation earlier… and they don’t get the benefit of some place to live… So making twice as much as their parents did is what they expect… unlike India where education is cheaper (And arguably lower quality) and the cultural norms don’t lead to separation of family living once some one passes the age of 18-21…

    so yeah… we’ve screwed our selves in america by charging more for higher quality education, and not branding it any differently then a lower quality degree from over seas institutions, we’ve screwed our selves by creating a culture where housing is as expensive as it is, and we’ll screw our selves at least once more when this is all over by generating MBA after MBA that views COST as the bottom line of their human resources.

  • fasolamatt

    copyedit: Tabarrok, not Tabbarok. Marginal Revolution, like News Cut, is one of my five favorite blogs.

  • bench

    As a college student, it KILLS me to have friends who go to college with the idea, “You can do anything! And you can get a job in anything!”

    Schools are letting anyone in if they pay their fees and are giving out degrees with little chances of paying back all those student loans. As a freshman, one of the reason I became a geology major was because it had great promise- many high paying jobs available throughout the country. It kills me to this day to see people going to college ‘undecided’ and then deciding on a major like Education at a school with tuition near $40k/yr. How is a teacher suppose to pay off over $160k in loans? I think the real issue isn’t that students have loans, it’s that students aren’t looking at their future. They want to do what is “fun” and not the “hard” classes/courses like math and science. My undergrad cut their Math major my freshman year while adding another Business professor. I don’t think schools who are very pricey should be banning majors like Art, English, etc., but students REALLY need to look at how much debt they will have and if their job/career will be able to pay off that debt.

    When did education become more about what was easy or fun instead of what is useful and applicable??

  • JackU

    #4 – No they should not be forced to leave the name behind. That way LA can have both the Lakers and the Vikings.

  • David

    “Discuss: Is college oversold?”

    Yes and no. I think great points were made about the types of degrees people are getting vs where the money is, but as another commenter hinted at how many students are allowed the perception that they can get a degree in Whatever Studies and get a high paying job?

    Another thing that many in Mn are shielded from and perhaps don’t realize is degree inflation, out East it seems as though everyone and their buddy has a PHD and that’s what it takes to get the jobs. It’s happening here too, my wife has essentially two masters degrees and several teaching licenses and works for 35k a year. It took her 3 years to find this job.

    My third and final point is the world needs ditch diggers too and I don’t mean that in a deragatory sense. Kids are not told to go to Staples and get a heavy equipment degree, a job which can pay 50+ an hour where someone can take winters off and still make 80k a year. Kids are not told to be a plumber or an electrician or a lineman for Exel Energy, these are all jobs that pay well with people that live happy rewarding lives. Instead, for some reason or another, society seems to lead kids down the path of getting a near worthless 4 year degree and unhappily putting in 5-10 years in a kitchen or coffee shop while looking for a career.

  • Jennifer

    I don’t think it’s simply an issue of people overselling college itself, but an issue of institutions overselling the flexibility of the degrees being offered. I am one of those kids with a near worthless 4 year degree that was in the coffee shop after graduating. While I was attending college, I came to realize in my sophmore year that I did not want to work directly in the field of my degree. When I went and discussed this with the academic advisors at my school, they assured me that such a degree would be applicable to other related fields that I was interested in, that it shouldn’t be a problem, the most important thing is to have the degree, and I wouldn’t need to change my major. I regret that I was naive enough to believe them. It hasn’t worked out that way and now I’m looking at going back to school and incurring even more debt just to be able to break into the fields I’d actually like to be in.

  • My high school senior son is considering colleges right now and planning a career in computer engineering. Two questions: Where should he attend college? Will he have a job when he graduates in four years?

    Also, I agree with David that we are not encouraging our kids to pursue jobs which don’t require a four-year degree. We need individuals with hands-on skills.

    My husband is an automotive machinist. Very few individuals do the type of work he does and I don’t even know if there’s a place in Minnesota where students can study this trade. His work is always in demand. People need their cars, trucks, vans, tractors, snowblowers, lawn mowers, etc., fixed, and even more so in this economy. He’s always swamped with work.

  • jon


    Education is a great field to go into… you just have to teach the right field in the right school (ie. special ed. in a poor school) and the government will remove the principal from your federal loans after so many years.

    I think they do similar for the peace corp. (not ameri-corp that does the same thing only not on foreign soil) and military personnel in combat areas…

    Heck maybe getting involved in so many wars was the governments way of forgiving student debt, just only for those who were members of the military.

  • Joanna

    People are under the illusion that the reason to go to college is to get job training, and that it is the major itself that gets you the job or prepares you for success. No, and no. A college degree in and of itself WILL get your foot in more doors, and certain degrees give you a knowledge base that gives you access to specific jobs, or professional programs, but good jobs will come to those who used their time in college to LEARN: how to write, how to communicate, how to collaborate, how to take advantage of opportunities to gain experience as interns or doing research; how to be punctual, how to present themselves professionally, how to do research and present their ideas clearly, how to ask a good question, how to manage a project, how to keep on learning. And yes, who learn about history or science, or whatever turns them on. My former students –who majored in Spanish Studies (literature and culture, that “useless stuff”)– have gone on to have successful careers in every field you can imagine, from teaching and social services to law, medicine, journalism, to starting their own businesses. Some work abroad, others return to work here. What they learned in our major can be helpful or even key to their success, but ultimately most of them do not go on to become Spanish teachers or translators; they use their major to grow as people who will then be in a position to be more successful in life.

    College itself is not what is oversold, rather it’s the idea that a BA is like a vocational certificate. If what you want is a certificate that guarantees you a job, by all means, learn a skilled trade. People who earn more than than I do: my dental hygienist, the guy who installs car stereos, my plumber. Good for them!

  • David

    Minnesota Prairie Roots,

    “My high school senior son is considering colleges right now and planning a career in computer engineering. Two questions: Where should he attend college? Will he have a job when he graduates in four years”

    Any of the Minnesota institutions are fine and if you want to save money our community colleges are a great way to get the basics out of the way. I started taking college classes in high school and went to UMD for computer science and then Brown Inst. for software engineering. My tech degree was way more valuable when I was first looking for a job, but my college experience and classes gave me a more rounded education.

    As for will there be a job? It’s always hard getting that first job, but computer science/enginnering is a great field to continue to a masters degree or consider a double major in math or another science. Within the next 10 years there will be jobs in the field and possibly a worker shortage as the boomers retire.

    I don’t share the same fear about out sourcing that many have as I’ve seen out sourcing fail in both practice and expense and many of the IT jobs that are out sourced are the lower level phone support positions.

  • Matt Steele

    I was going to respond, but then I realized that Joanna said everything I had to say. Right on!