My good blogging buddy, Matt, over at Optimize Your Life, penned a very intriguing post last week. The name of the post was, Politics and the Things We Can Control, and the gist of the post can be boiled down to one pithy sentence: Government matters and personal finance bloggers shouldn’t be completely disengaged from the political fray.
In one sense, I completely agree with Matt. In fact, way back in October of 2015, I penned a post showing that for many families, the most expensive item in their household budget is the cost of government. The family I highlighted in this post spent a third of its household income on government through property and income taxes. And we, as personal finance bloggers, are supposed to ignore this elephant in the room? Call me nuts, but that strikes me as a kind of professional malpractice.
But in another sense, I think Matt is opening a huge can of worms. People turn to personal finance blogs because they’re looking for actionable ways to fix their finances right now. They’re not looking for political advice. They know that fixing the government is a project, and they would rather invest their time and energy in fixing themselves than in tilting at windmills.
So what’s a personal finance blogger to do? Just stick to finances? Ignore the government, regardless of how detrimental it has become to the average citizen’s quest for financial independence?
Damn this personal finance blogging is hard!
Well, after much rumination on the topic, I’m siding with Matt. Yes, it’s perfectly okay for personal finance bloggers to be goo-goos too—but ONLY as long as they broach the topic infrequently (i.e., once every month or so), and ONLY as long as they present their ideas in a courteous and considerate manner (i.e., with “malice toward none”). It’s one thing to say, “Here’s an idea that might make things better.” It’s quite another thing to say, “Here’s an idea to make things better, and anyone who disagrees is a racist fascist moron.”
Okay, in deference to Matt, I’ve decided to devote the second Wednesday of every month to political stuff. Here, then, is my first installment of Second Wednesday of the Month Politics.
WARNING: This post is 100% political flapdoodle. If you don’t want to be subjected to my twisted political musings, please leave this page now. I won’t be offended; we part friends. If on the other hand you do want to hear my twisted political musings, that’s totally groovy. And if you care to comment about my political musings, that’s even better than groovy—that’s wavy gravy, man. But if you do comment, please keep it constructive and within the bounds of good taste. I already know I’m a butthead.
I have a master’s degree in public administration. And to get this vaunted piece of paper that’s now sitting in a cardboard tube somewhere in my garage, I took a lot of classes and explored a bevy of majors. And what do I remember from this cavalcade of instruction?
Well, I remember the definition of a dinosaur.
An archosaurian diapsid reptile with a perforated acetabulum.
I also remember a quote from Justice Louis Brandeis (culled, I believe, from William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well).
“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”
And I remember a strongly held adage from E.S. Savas, one of my professors in grad school.
“The first and best Department of Health, Education, and Welfare is the family.”
But beyond that, I don’t remember much. Oh, sure, I have a vague recollection of some additional tidbits. But if someone asked me to explain Piaget’s formal operations stage, define a gerund, or find the derivative of (x² – 2x) (x – 2), I’d be completely lost.
Suppose, however, I did remember the bulk of my college education. Would that knowledge have helped me in my professional career?
I studied sociology, journalism, and public administration in college. And I can safely say that nothing from these studies would have made me a better dead-animal fetcher, a better asphalt shoveler, or a better database programmer. Everything I learned to advance my career I learned on the job or on my own by buying books. In fact, if I didn’t teach myself the fundamentals of C#, SQL, and relational databases, I’d still be fetching dead animals and shoveling asphalt.
And my experience with college is hardly atypical. Here’s a breakdown of what my three college housemates and my two best friends from childhood have done with their degrees.
|Name||Relationship||Degree||Major||Career After College|
|Andy||College Housemate||Bachelor's||Marketing||Sold computers and then got a marketing job at The New York Times.|
|Dan||Childhood Friend||Associate's||Nursing||Salesman for various medical supply companies.|
|Joe||College Housemate||Bachelor's||English||Salesman on Wall Street.|
|Kevin||Childhood Friend||Bachelor's||Business||Began his career as a clerk for Bear Sterns but quit after a year. He joined the New York City Fire Department and is currently a battalion chief.|
|Mark||College Housemate||Bachelor's||Sports Journalism||Worked briefly as a producer for a Detroit news station. Once he was downsized, he became a mortgage salesman. He is currently selling mortgages for Bank of America.|
Only one of my buds has had a career that remotely follows what he studied in college (Andy). Now granted, this 20% hit rate is probably low for the total population of college graduates. But it’s probably not off by much. There are, after all, a lot of cab drivers, bartenders, and baristas out there with bachelors’ degrees.
Now a question. Giving the ephemeral quality of so many degrees awarded today, does it really make sense to saddle millions of young Americans with debilitating student-loan debt for instruction that 1) will be largely forgotten, and 2) will grow increasingly irrelevant to their jobs as the years go by? Can’t we come up with a better way for people to show a potential employer that they’re bright and that they have some gumption? Can’t we come up with a better credential?
The Groovy Solution
Problem: The cost of college. Too many Americans have degrees of questionable value; too many Americans have debilitating student-loan debt; and too many Americans have been priced out of the market for acquiring advanced skills.
Goal: A credential that’s just as good as a bachelor’s degree but is far cheaper. This will allow more Americans, especially young Americans, to learn worthwhile skills while incurring little or no student-loan debt. It will also mean lower higher education costs for the taxpayers.
Solution: Unbundle the bachelor’s degree, sue employers, and put colleges on the hook when people default on their student loans. Here’s how these proposals would look in practice.
1. Unbundle the bachelor’s degree and allow students to just purchase the trade school part of higher education.
When it comes to the bachelor’s degree, there are basically three components: the trade school part, the finishing school part, and the extracurricular part. Here’s a brief description of each.
Trade school part. This is the meat and potatoes of a bachelor’s degree. It’s the core knowledge of your chosen field, the 15-20 classes that pertain to your major.
Finishing school part. This is what your college believes a thoughtful person should think and know. Think Econ 101. Think Psych 101. Think Geology of the Dinosaurs. And to make sure you leave its hallowed halls properly molded, the typical college requires you to take 20-25 classes outside your chosen major.
Extracurricular part. This is all that stuff that doesn’t pertain to the 40 classes you need to take for your bachelor’s degree. Think clubs, climbing walls, frat parties, spring break, protests, and football games—it’s what people commonly refer to as the college experience.
The position taken here is that the finishing school part and the extracurricular part of a bachelor’s degree are largely superfluous. This doesn’t mean they don’t have value or they aren’t fun. It just means they add little or nothing to the hard skills students are trying to acquire for the labor market. And at the price of a college credit today, it’s hard to see how they’re worth it.
Suppose then that Congress passes the following law.
Any college or university that receives federal money, whether in the form of student loans, Pell grants, or research grants, must unbundle the bachelor’s degree and give students the option of just purchasing the trade school part of a bachelor’s degree. Students who opted for just the trade school part of a bachelor’s degree would be awarded an express degree. An express degree shall have the same standing as a bachelor’s degree when it comes to applying for graduate school.
Now, to show you how an express degree would work, I looked up the trade-school part of a BS in computer science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Here it is.
|Core Requirements||Additional Requirements|
|COMP 455||COMP 401|
|COMP 550||COMP 410|
|MATH 547 or MATH 577||COMP 411|
|STOR 435||MATH 231|
|Five additional COMP courses numbered 426 or higher||MATH 232|
|COMP 283 or MATH 381|
|PHYS 116 or PHYS 118|
|A second science course from BIOL 101, BIOL 202, BIOL 205, CHEM 101, CHEM 102, GEOL 101, ASTR 101, PHYS 117, PHYS 119, PHYS 351, or PHYS 352|
The trade school part of this BS in computer science amounts to 18 classes. Let’s now compare the cost of an express degree versus a bachelor’s degree.
|Total Credits (18 x 3)||54|
|Classes Per Semester||5|
|Total Cost of Tuition||$12,043.13|
|Total Credits (40 x 3)||120|
|Classes Per Semester||5|
|Total Cost of Tuition and Fees||$33,343.68|
By opting out of the finishing school part and extracurricular part of a bachelor’s degree, a student could easily reduce the cost of his or her college education by 60%.
But what if employers still required a bachelor’s degree as a condition for employment? Wouldn’t that severely compromise the value of an express degree? Yes, it would. And to counter this very likely scenario, I offer part two of my Groovy Solution.
2. Sue employers who use the bachelor’s degree as a screening device.
Many employers today use the bachelor’s degree as a screening device. If you don’t have one, you’re not getting an interview.
Now, I understand why employers do this. It’s a crude but cost-effective way to separate the bright and energetic candidates from the dull and lazy ones. But is it ethical? And should it be legal?
Consider the following. A young man goes to MIT and takes 12 computer courses before he drops out for financial reasons. He gets an A in each of these courses. The guy’s a programming beast; he can write Naive Bayes Classification algorithms in his sleep. And you mean to tell me that some HR department will deem him unqualified for a programming position just because he doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree?
I can see screening by education. There’s no reason why an employer can’t require a candidate to have a certain number of industry-specific courses from an accredited college. But to say that someone with an express degree in, say, English is unqualified to be an editor for an online magazine is ridiculous.
So the second part of my plan to dramatically lower the cost of higher education, and to ensure that the express degree has equal standing in the labor market with the bachelor’s degree, is to team up with the ACLU and sue the crap out of employers who use the bachelor’s degree as a screening device.
And there is precedent for this suit. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Griggs v Duke Power that Duke Power, an electric company in North and South Carolina, couldn’t use a high school diploma as a requirement for its higher paying jobs. The court ruled that a high school diploma had no “demonstrable relationship to the successful performance of the jobs for which it was used.” In other words, as a screening device, the high school diploma was too imprecise. Many people who lacked a high school diploma were more than capable of excelling at the jobs requiring a high school diploma.
Hello, ACLU! I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but the parallels between Griggs v Duke Power and the common employer practice today of degree-based discrimination seems uncanny.
3. Make colleges reimburse the federal government for the amount of money defaulted on when a student can’t pay his or her student loans due to bankruptcy.
I just don’t understand how a college in good conscience could allow one of its students to rack up $40K in student loans for a sociology degree, especially knowing that this said student won’t be allowed to discharge that debt in bankruptcy. Heck, we expect bartenders to cut off drunks. But college presidents and trustees get a pass? They have no moral obligation to fret over what their business model is doing to the long term financial health of their students?
This nonsense has to stop. And it will with the third part of my Groovy Solution. Congress should 1) amend the bankruptcy laws so student loan debt can be discharged, and 2) make colleges reimburse the federal government for any student load debt that is discharged in bankruptcy. In other words, colleges should have some skin in the game when it comes to student loans. Maybe then they’ll think twice about admitting students who aren’t prepared for rigorous instruction. Maybe then they’ll reconsider the amenities arms race they’ve been locked in for the past several decades. Maybe then they’ll realize that they primarily exist, not to graduate people with fancy pieces of paper and debilitating student loan debt, but to graduate people with real skills and enough labor market clout to crush whatever student loan debt they might have incurred.
Something’s seriously wrong on campus today. A football coach making $9 million a year. Adjunct professors on food stamps. A weekly bacchanal that starts on Thursday night and ends sometime on Sunday. And then there’s the prevailing orthodoxy. Too many colleges are weak on limited government, weak on due process, and weak on freedom of speech. Too many colleges are also weak when it comes to having a single standard for all (i.e., equality of treatment). And if you don’t believe me, just answer the following questions. Which professor in academia today is more likely to be accused of committing a microaggression? A professor who comes into class wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt, or a professor who comes into class wearing a MAGA t-shirt? And who in academia today is more likely to be asked to check his or her privilege? The white student who grew up in a single-parent household and had an SAT score above the school’s mean, or the black student who grew up in a two-parent household and had an SAT score 200 points below the school’s mean?
But, hey, just because I loathe much about college and the bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean that you do. And that’s the beauty of my proposed express degree. Those who want only the trade school part of college can just go for an express degree; those who want the full monty but can’t afford it can just go for an express degree as well; and those who want the full monty and can afford it can go for the vaunted bachelor’s degree. Everybody wins.
Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. What say you? Is my express degree a worthwhile credential? If you had a choice between an express degree and a bachelor’s degree, what would you choose? And, finally, would my Groovy Solution, if implemented, dramatically lower the cost of a college education for both students and taxpayers without sacrificing quality? Let me know what you think when you get a chance. Peace.