Thursday, February 3, 2011

Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson Criticized For Saying Colleges Give "Degrees To Nowhere", But Harvard Study Supports His Contention

Utah State Senator Howard Stephenson (R-Draper) has taken some criticism for saying that many colleges tend to give "degrees to nowhere", but a newly-released Harvard study may buttress his claims.

Stephenson made the remark on Tuesday February 1st after he voted against a higher education budget bill before the Senate, SB7, because it includes cuts to the Utah College of Applied Technology, which he says is more effective than universities in placing graduates in jobs. Utah colleges and universities are facing a 7 percent cut, while eight applied technology schools are slated to be cut 5.9 percent at this point. Stephenson said they shouldn't be cut at all, and voted against the bill to show his opposition. Afterwards, Stephenson explained that students enter college with blinders on and leave with thousands of dollars in student loans but no employment prospects, specifically mentioning graduates in psychology, sociology and philosophy.

"They wake up the to the stark reality that there is no job. The return on investment is stark," Stephenson said. "The taxpayers are subsidizing degrees to nowhere in many cases."

Immediately he drew criticism from Sen. Ross Romero (D-Salt Lake) and even from a fellow Republican, Sen. Stephen Urquhart (R-St. George). Since Urquhart is the sponsor of SB7, his feathers might have been a bit ruffled over Stephenson's criticism. But on February 2nd, Stephenson defended his assessment, saying that colleges aren't giving sociology, psychology and philosophy majors the real story, refusing to inform them and give them the necessary data. KSL news video embedded below:

Video Courtesy of KSL.com


Sen. Stephenson is not saying that four-year degrees are undesirable; he holds a four-year-degree and master's from Brigham Young University. But he thinks vocational education is just as valid.

It turns out that Sen. Stephenson may have an unexpected ally at Harvard. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has released a report entitled "Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century" which states that "Despite decades of efforts to reform education, and billions of dollars of expenditures, the harsh reality is that America is still failing to prepare millions of its young people to lead successful lives as adults. Evidence of this failure is everywhere: in the dropout epidemic that plagues our high schools and colleges; in the harsh fact that just 30 percent of our young adults earn a bachelor's degree by age 27; and in teen and young adult employment rates not seen since the Great Depression".

According to the press release, the report calls for a pathways system which would be based on three essential elements. The first and most important is the development of a broader vision of school reform that embraces multiple pathways to help young people successfully navigate the journey from adolescence to adulthood. Too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college. While the United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10-year period ending in 2018, only a third of these jobs will require a bachelor's or higher degree. Almost as many jobs - some 30 percent - will only require an associate's degree or a post-secondary occupational credential. More emphasis is needed on vocational education and apprenticeship programs.

Second, the report argues that we need to ask our nation's employers to play a greatly expanded role in supporting the pathways system, and in providing more opportunities for young adults to participate in work-based learning and actual jobs related to their programs of study.

And finally, the report contends that we need to develop a new social compact between society and our young people. The compact's central goal would be that by the time they reach their mid-20s, every young adult will be equipped with the education and experience he or she needs to lead a successful life as an adult.

Since Harvard and Howard Stephenson are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, and both are making the same claims about our educational system, perhaps we ought to listen.

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