Why Colleges have Failed our Kids

My company has had a fruitful relationship with the University of Massachusetts of Lowell since we started operations 5 years ago. As a small company we don't have the luxury of hiring all the engineering talent we need. So we hire a U Mass engineering intern to do bread-and-butter type work and contract out the higher level engineering services as needed. U Mass has outstanding internship and coop programs and their students can "hold their own" against those from my alma mater MIT. (Perhaps in a future blog I'll relate the experiences that I've had with MIT and U Mass graduates over the year that have led me to conclude that the former have a superior sense of entitlement while the latter have a superior work ethic.)

But I digress. Last year the U Mass at Lowell Career and Coop Center invited me to speak at a special one-day workshop for engineering majors about to embark on new careers. I was part of a panel that spoke to graduates on the subject of navigating the transition between college and work. When I entered the room of about 200 students I was shocked by what I saw. Students who were Asian (including Indian) outnumbered those who weren't by about at least a factor of 5. Clearly engineering and, by extension, science or math, was not beckoning to the two-thirds of the student population that was not Asian.

Here are some sobering statistics released by a 2011 report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University: At the time of the report the national unemployment rate was 9.3%. The unemployment rate for engineers is 7.0%. For math majors it's 5.9%. But if you graduated in 2011 with a degree in Arts you faced a 9.8% unemployment rate and, if that degree is in the social sciences, the rate is 10.3%. Clearly a bachelor's degree confers an economic benefit but not if you graduate with a degree in the arts or social sciences. In fact the arts graduate can only expect to make $30,000 out of college. The humanities graduate will do a little better at $36,000. To be fair, an advanced degree boosts these numbers considerably but the point remains that graduating with a degree in a major valued by society do better.

I have a daughter who will graduate next year from the University of Vermont with a major in English and minor in Arts. I believe she was put on this earth to do something artistic. She is phenomenally talented and, if she con wrap business skills around her artistic core, she stands a really good chance of making her way in the world. She won't get rich but she will be happy.

We need people who can write, create art, make music and understand history. But we need these people to understand the economic realities of their choices so that they can make informed decisions. The calculus behind their decision making is a lot different today than it was when I graduated college in 1978. The average cost of a college education in 1980 was $38,000 in today's dollars. Today that amount will cover the tuition for one and half semesters—that's a whopping increase of 2 1/2 times the rate of inflation. Paying back a $30,000 loan on a social worker's salary is doable. Paying back a $200,000 loan is not.

Behind those exploding numbers are deeply disturbing cost drivers, such as the doubling of administrators on campus from 1987 to 2012 (source: Bain and Company, 2012). Can you imagine the fate that would befall a private business that doubled it's payroll on overhead while churning out the same number of widgets? Then there's the sky's-the-limit mentality of campus construction. Did MIT really need to spend $430 million and hire celebrity architect Frank Gehry to design its Stata Center whose hallucinogenic design was designed to crack and leak? Does the bookstore of my college youth really need to be a shopping complex that looks more like Copley Place or Tyson's Galleria?

Most of us parents want our kids to follow their passions. But we also owe it to them to make them aware of the consequences of the decisions that they make when they start the most important four years (okay five nowadays) years of their lives. Our colleges don't see the need to address this important educational role. They seem content to collect the quarter of a million dollars that we (who can afford to do so) will shell out for our kids' educations. A few months ago the University of Vermont advised me to urge my daughter to fundraise for the college. The pay was minimum wage. But she she should do it because it was a chance for her "to give back to the University of Vermont." Many in my generation think that young people have a sense of entitlement. Colleges have them beat by a country mile.

I hope the millions of college kids enjoy the four best years living the charmed, campus life. When many of them graduate they will be unable to pay their college loans or find a job they'll probably wish they were a little wiser going in when than when they came out. On that note our colleges failed to educate them.