Reforming Higher Education: Incentives, STEM Majors, and Liberal Arts Majors – the Education versus Credential Tradeoff

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent series on jobless young people features an article today on why students study liberal arts in college over STEM subjects, and why so many would-be STEM majors shift to liberal arts, despite the apparent loss of career prospects.  Larry Ribstein follows up with commentary suggesting that law school becomes a logical option for students who were badly guided in their choices of majors – leading them to liberal arts with few skills and few prospects in today’s world.

I want to reiterate something I wrote about a few weeks ago about the incentive structures for students. I’m basing this on my current experience as a law professor who talks a lot with students at a mid-tier law school and what led them there, as well as my experience as a parent of a student who will be doing humanities as her major at Rice, a school with world class STEM and world class humanities.

There are a lot of smart students out there who will nonetheless not be able to compete in world class institutions in STEM.  Why?  They might have, say, near 800s in verbal and writing, and mid 600s in math on the SAT.  (This matches up, btw, to Gene Expression blog’s mapping of the GRE scores of various college majors for the highest testing of the humanities majors – the philosophy students, who have about exactly those scores.  I’ll put up the charts in a later post, but very roughly the verbal and math scores flip for the highest scoring of the sciences – physics, and are somewhere in the middle for the highest scoring of the social sciences, economics.)  At a school like Rice – and any university ranked above it – specialization has already taken place, sorting by subject area.  A tiny handful of students can be true polymaths, but that’s hardly the norm.  Instead, the STEM students are sought competitively on a world-wide basis, and it will be academic suicide and frankly impossible for a student who is not at the top of those competitive areas even to pass the classes.

In that case, if you are a smart but not brilliant student in STEM, you might tell yourself until you are blue in the face that you must study STEM to be employable and have real skills.  But the reality is that you will flunk out or come close to it, or be lucky to get by with Cs.  Moreover, at that level of performance, it is not clear that you are actually acquiring STEM skills, just at a C level compared to an A level.  Pedagogically, it doesn’t work that way.  The bottom end students wind up not really learning anything, because the class moves at a pace and in a way that they can’t keep up with, even to get a lesser grounding in it.

Why do the STEM departments grade so strictly, compared with other departments?  There are reasons why the liberal arts departments tend to grade inflation; treat that separately.  The STEM departments have their own incentives for holding grades down, especially in the introductory courses.  Basically, the reputation of the department rests disproportionately on the very top performers.  Less on the average, and not at all on what general ed classes are offered to the rest of the university.  If that’s the case, then better to relentlessly winnow down in the first classes, and concentrate resources on the top performers.  Reputation is measured mostly at the top margin.

From the standpoint of a student who says, I don’t want to be an engineer or research chemist or computer scientist – I want to get a strong grounding in those fields, in a genuinely technical way – but I want to be a manager or someone with a non-technical job that requires interaction with the technical fields – how do I do that?  At the top range of universities, the STEM departments simply don’t have a place for you.  The university might require that the departments offer general ed courses – and so you will be offered, “rocks for jocks.”  It won’t be technical; it will be gee-whiz, without the math.  What you are looking for is a technical track designed for a student who is Yale quality in history or philosophy, but who needs something more like State College for technical skills.   That would be the ideal mix – but there is little incentive for the STEM departments to create such a thing.

I’ve suggested that what these liberal arts students need, then, is for the university somehow to provide technical minors for liberal arts students that are genuinely technical, but at a level for students who do have some quantitative skills, but who cannot compete against the world class technical specialist students.  But now there is a problem for those liberal arts majors.  Why, going back to the WSJ article, do they gravitate to the easiest majors that provide the fewest skills?  Because they understand that in many cases, in today’s world no liberal arts major – apart from economics – will be taken very seriously to gain entry level to management, corporate consulting, etc.  You will eventually be looking at professional school – business school or law school.  And those schools care only about the GPA/LSAT-GMAT.  That’s because those two figure so heavily in the USNWR rankings.  So the GPA matters fantastically much – and, perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, the difficulty of the major is not taken into account.

These professional schools have traditionally accepted any major, and do not differentiate.  So, a friend here in DC asked me about two recent interns of his who had gone on to law school – he was astonished and troubled to find that the MIT grad with the B average in STEM had fared far less well than the NYU English major.  As in: the NYU lit grad went to Harvard and the MIT grad was wait-listed at American.  That might seem surprising, but in addition, USNWR takes a generally hands off attitude toward the ranking of the undergraduate institutions.  Meaning (and if someone in admissions processes wants to correct me on this regarding how USNWR treats the undergraduate institutions in law or b-school rankings, I would be very interested to know about it): a law school taking a bunch of B+ students from Harvard undergrad will be worse off than taking A students from University of Arizona.  The law or b-school admissions offices might want to have some number of Ivy graduates, but so far as I know, that does not count in USNWR rankings of the professional schools.

The top universities have many reasons for grade inflation in liberal arts, but this fact counts among them.  Undergraduates who realize that they cannot compete with global specialists in STEM, particularly at the top universities, opt for liberal arts subjects.  They and the universities realize that GPA is all that matters, and unsurprisingly, GPAs rise.  How much?  Well, just this week the University of Illinois College of Law was forced to restate downwards its false GPA and LSAT data for the last couple of years.  Illinois is a darn fine school, with one of the great faculties in law – a leading top 25 school – but it is still not Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.  Its average GPAs were restated downwards from 3.8 to … 3.7.  I regard that as an astronomical GPA, and that’s average.

Overlooked in all this is the immensely damaging effect of grade inflation on risk-taking among our supposedly brightest elites.  Grade inflation is really grade compression against a top line.  And grade compression means that mostly you have nowhere to go but down.  How do you avoid that?  When falling below, in effect, an A- at worst average easily drives you out of the top ten law schools?  Or out of the top 20?  And when you know, and your parents know, that in addition to the 50k a year you’ve paid to study some liberal arts subject that only has a return on investment if you double down the bet on law school or b-school – at another 50k a year?  And further, when you know that outside of the top 25 or so law schools at this very moment, the job opportunities are sufficiently iffy that you are not so much making an investment as placing a bet on employment … well, you are going to not just rationally, but desperately, seek every way of ensuring that your GPA is as close to 4.0 as humanly possible.

It is not, in other words, that you made irrational, foolish, or bad choices as a sophomore to study liberal arts, and the easiest majors among them, rather than STEM.  Nor is law school then a way of merely making a more rational best of a bad and irrational situation.  It is, rather, that you figured out that precisely because you had managed to get into a highly regarded university, you could not compete with the worldwide competition that the engineering school sees as its reputational guarantor – and in any case, your desire was not to be purely a technical STEM person, in research or pure engineering.  Getting a C in courses in engineering at Rice or Stanford is not the equivalent of getting As at Cal Poly; getting Cs in these subjects probably means you didn’t learn anything substantial at a level you could understand and apply.  So you switch to liberal arts, and immediately notice that your GPA goes up.  Then you notice that top 25 law schools are basically demanding a near 4.0 GPA.

At that point (if not before, way back in high school), serious risk aversion kicks in.  You do not take any class, if possible, where you aren’t pretty assured of getting an A or at worst an A-.  That will lead you to fields in which the major offers no job prospects, by the way, and so the tradeable currency of the department (all the ethnic and gender studies programs, anthropology, globalization studies, and many more) turns out to be As as a mechanism for continuing to get majors to come to the department.  If anyone does not believe that university administrations monitor closely the numbers of majors, think again; many of these majors will come under serious pressure as students realize there is nothing on the other side.  They will offer students As.  And so long as the professional schools and USNWR treat all grades as fungible, there will be an market in arbitrageable As as surely as Greece depended on it being treated as well as Germany.

In response to having said this in blunt, fatherly-advice terms in in earlier posts on this blog, I’ve received many well-meaning, sometimes pious comments from people saying, well, you should just suck it up in order to get genuinely educated.  Here is what Dad says:  sorry, but forget it.  Higher education is both too expensive and the risks of failure – serious downward mobility of a kind I’ve also written about on this blog, not to universal acclaim – too great for it to be rational to put the education ahead of the credential.  I wish, as an educator, a human being, and a parent, it were otherwise, but it’s not.

My advice to my own daughter is to ask:

  • (a) is there a serious possibility that you might decide to stop with an undergraduate education?  If the answer is yes, better make sure you study things like accounting, because you can’t compete against the best students China has to offer in STEM.  If you major in something like Human Rights and Global Justice, you might as well go sleep in a tent somewhere, because you will have no employable skills, and while there might be a Santa Claus, there is not a line of NGOs waiting to hire you.  You’d do somewhat better with a liberal arts major that sent a signal that you had analytic writing skills, but philosophy and intellectual history are the only two that come to mind, given the general analytic implosion of English departments.

And then to ask:

  • (b) is there a serious possibility that you plan to go on to law school or b-school?  If so, then the strategy is completely different – go with classes and majors that maximize GPA, period.  No other priority in any class that has a grade.  If that means Sustainable Development in Latin America, go for it; if it means anthropology as human rights activism, go for it; if it means Global Justice, go for it.  The professional schools won’t care; all that matters is the GPA.

Note that (a) and (b) lead to radically different and mostly incompatible strategies.  And how does one know that as a sophomore?  As to an actual education, well, that’s nice.  But not at 50k a year, when those four years are themselves simply a downpayment on the law school bet that you can get employed.  At those prices it’s the credential that matters.  The education does matter, yes.  So Daddy’s advice is:  Use pass-fail classes to take things that you need as education but can’t afford to screw up.  Take summer school at other schools in ways that allow the credits to transfer but not the grade (note to students: take these pass fail as well, because usually you will have to give transcripts for all college courses taken, and GPA will reflect that as calculated at the application level).  Use summer courses to get technical background as much as possible.  But remember that at $350k principal for undergrad and law school, it’s a credential first.

There are ways in which universities could partly address this at the undergrad level.  The most practical, given the education-versus-credential problem, and the problem of grade inflation across all universities that no single school can fix – technical minors on a pass-not pass basis.  Two requirements to make this work practically.  First, they have to be offered at a level that is genuinely technical, but pitched to a level that meets the math skills of students who got 600s on their math SATs, not 800s.  It is a hard practical judgment – how technical is technical but not beyond reach?  Second, these courses, or better, technical minors need to be pass-not pass, otherwise no student in liberal arts can afford to take them.  The risk is too high.  It’s not a perfect solution, but this is something that universities could do without having to solve the impossible coordination problems of grade inflation/compression – or the problem of USNWR rankings.

(I’m in a hurry and on the road; I’ll clean up parts of this post later.)

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