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Snake-Oil Salesmen, Diploma Mills, and Me

Guest post by Brad Dallas, GCC Math Faculty

I have always believed in education.  I believe that education leads to more money, more opportunity, more friends, and a happier and healthier life.  For those who believe, no proof is necessary.  But what is the source of my belief?  Certainly, my belief has been influenced by authority figures.  Both mom and dad (educators of course) told me to do my homework and propounded the value of learning.  Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln once proclaimed, “I can only say that I view it [education] as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

After reading the book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, especially the chapter “Arms Race: Going to College,” I am worried about the degree to which advertisers may have impacted my thinking.  With all of today’s accusations of “fake news,” it is hard to know which sources of information one should trust.

Nevertheless, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people who graduate from college still make more money than those with just a high school diploma.  In fact, people with a college degree made around $1156 a week, while someone with a high school diploma earned just $692.  Furthermore, college graduates increase their job choices since many jobs require a college degree.  Plus, college graduates have less chance of losing their jobs.  In 2016, the unemployment rate for high school graduates was 5.2 percent, but it was only 2.7 percent for college graduates.

Harder to measure are the opportunities to make friends and live happy, healthy lives. Be that as it may, the friends that students make in college will help them get jobs. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center report, 44% percent of recent job hunting Americans said some sort of relationship­­–a professional connection, family member, friend or friend of a friend–was the most important resource in their search.  Another 2015 report by the Pew Research Center claims the divorce rate for college graduates is about 26% percent, compared to 43% for high school graduates, and according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau data, 92% of Americans age 25 to 64 with a bachelor’s degree had some type of health insurance in 2014, while only 82% of people with just a high school diploma were insured that year.

So what’s the problem?  In her book, O’Neil rails against for-profit institutions using predatory advertising to sell false promises.  I am left wondering if perhaps we at the community colleges are doing the same thing.  When it comes to Weapons of Math Destruction, predatory ads practically define the genre.  Big Data ranks, categorizes, and scores people in hundreds of models, on the basis of their revealed preferences and patterns in order to pinpoint people in great need and sell them false or overpriced promises.

According to O’Neil, “These so-called diploma mills were often underwritten by government-financed loans, and the diplomas they awarded had scant value in the workplace.”  In many professions, they were no more valuable than a high school degree.  What’s worse is that students are left buried under mountains of debt.  According to data from federalreserve.gov, Americans collectively owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loans, and it’s debilitating our youth by starting their lives with an unrealistic burden causing stress, anxiety, depression, and even divorce.

In our defense, community college tuition is significantly less than tuition at for-profit institutions with students spending an average of $1974 for in-state tuition and fees. While our three-year graduation rate is only 12%, our success rate (defined to be the graduation rate plus the transfer out rate) is approximately 44%, according to U.S. News Education.  An additional 15% of our students continue to be enrolled after three years and continue to work toward their degrees.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education College Scorecard, 56% of students who attend GCC earned, on average, more than those with only a high school diploma.  For the most part, our GCC graduates are finding jobs and making money.  Nearly 84% of our graduates reported to be working and not attending school 6 years after enrollment with median earnings of $33,300 compared to a national average of $33,028.

In the book, O’Neil charges that for-profit colleges sell the promise of an education and a tantalizing glimpse of upward mobility while plunging students deeper into debt.  While this may be partially true for for-profit colleges, I still believe in the value of the education that GCC provides.  However, we should be aware of the influence of Big Data and resolve to limit its sway to what is best for our students.

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