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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lone Wolf Philosophy - (part III) - The Declining Return in the Investment in Education

To the right you'll see a chart I linked from

It says that in 2012 the estimated debt for a graduate student leaving (graduating) school is around $43,524 USD.

With some 831,645 estimated graduates this amounts to about $36 billion USD.

We can estimate from this website and this site that there are about 17,565,000 undergraduates enrolled in college carrying an average of about $18,625 USD by the time they graduate.  So if only 60% graduate that means debt is piling on (as of 2009 for these statistics) at about $190 billion a year.

To be blunt these numbers are staggering.

First of all, based on experience with four children 19-25 year olds are not the sharpest when it comes to managing money.  So while they are the ones piling on the debt directly there are more than likely ill equipped to deal with the consequences.

Now, let's think about the philosophy of all this relative to my claims about higher education and academic research.

If you look at who's going to be writing and publishing papers in academic circles its going to be graduate students and professors.  Now to become a professor one must have been a graduate student and undergraduate somewhere.

So combining these numbers we can estimate something on the order of $61,000 USD of debt upon achieving a PhD ($43K + $18K).

This is all for someone without earning their first real paycheck with their education.

Now in the "real world" people will do a lot of crime for $61,000.  Rob banks, steal cars, embezzle money from places they work, run up drug debt, you name it.  A junkie might burn through heroin at the rate of about $10,000 USD per year, for example.

So my first question here is doesn't this debt put an "ethical strain" on these students and graduates?

Obviously you need to make a lot of money to repay this kind of debt - as I have written before $600 USD or more per month in student loan payments - many paying up to $1,000 or more a month.

Given this and the associated "publish or perish" model for associate professors without tenure doesn't it seem likely that beyond basic personal morality there is little to prevent "fudging" of data and results in order to "keep up" with the publish or perish lifestyle?

Now given that if you don't publish your PhD or Master's in a discipline outside the interest of normal business areas, English, climate science, ethnic studies, isn't going to get you a job that covers the "monthly nut" of your loan payment - let alone a reasonable lifestyle.

It seems like you must succeed at publishing or face certain financial disaster.

To me this situation creates a very unpleasant ethical problem: I give you substantial money to acquire an education.  You become indebted to me.  And in turn you promise to use your education in the future to pay down your debt.

But what if the industry you graduate in is overstaffed in four or six years when you graduate?

Or the economy is bad?

What if you simply chose a career without much of a future to earn money, like academics?

The second thing this chart above shows is that the price of education in terms of debt is dropping rapidly.

From 2002 to 2012 it would appear that education's cost at the graduate level increased may 15%.

Yet the number of graduate students would appear to have almost doubled.

So for the same amount of debt ten years ago about half the number of students graduated as do today.

Or to put it another way is the education $50K worth of debt bought in 2002 as good as what $50K worth of debt buys today given that twice the number of graduate students would appear to be graduating.

Or are the institutions of higher learning simply doing less per student in order to make money?

Taken in the context of "science" and our future as a nation and people I think these statistics are very troubling indeed.

My thesis on this is

1) It would appear that the value of a "higher education" in the last ten years in terms of debt was cut in half.

2) This debt creates an ethical nightmare for students ill-equipped to deal with its consequences.

3) The consequences of #1 and #2 are diminishing the quality of education in this country and with it the quality of medicine, science and life in general.

If the value of an investment dropped in half over a decade why would more people invest?

So we've placed our children into a "declining investment" which will hobble them financially and ethically for decades to come.

We've told them they need this "investment" in order to succeed in life, yet at the same time its value is plummeting.

We've place an enormous ethical strain on those in academia to "afford" this debt by "publishing."  Yet outside academia we see that the accuracy of these publications is becoming more and more questionable.

Academia fights back hard when the value of its activities are questioned, to wit the firing of blogger Naomi Schaefer Riley for questioning the academic value of a black studies program in a post.

"In science when you lose the ability to question things science becomes religion." - From my last post.

Aren't then, by this, academic institutions really becoming expensive religious institutions where dogma is dispensed and believed without question?

Aren't academics becoming the pharisees of old-school religion?

Has debt become the price of penance in this new religion?

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