President's Blog


For the past two weeks, I have written about the value of even a limited amount of college education. While a degree is critical to professional success in every way, the report by the Hamilton Group provided evidence that starting college, even if a degree is not completed, is an important and valuable investment.

If you read my blog last week, I ended with the sentence, And we havent even mentioned the value of a liberal education!  Well, for the next few weeks, thats the focus of my comments. Specifically, I just completed reading a thoughtful and compelling report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, developed by its Commission on the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

The report is entitled, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation.  Its genesis represents an all too rare bi-partisan effort. The report was commissioned by a quartet of lawmakers: Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Representative Thomas Petri of Wisconsin both Republicans; Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Representative David Price of North Carolina both Democrats. The charge from these congressional members was:

What are the top actions that Congress, state governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors, and others should take now to maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education, and to achieve long-term national goals for our intellectual and economic well-being; for a stronger, more vibrant civil society; and for the success of cultural diplomacy in the 21st century? 

This report is viewed by its authors as a complement to the 2007 publication of, Rising Above the Gathering Storm.  The 2007 report generated from the scientific community and was intended to strengthen STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and to encourage new and expanding funding for scientific research.

The Commission that produced The Heart of the Matter was comprised of 54 members including scholars, business executives, scientists, philanthropists, engineers and artists. The members were drawn from higher education, the corporate world, both the public and private sectors, government service, foundations and the arts.

In producing this report, the Commission was guided by three overarching goals that they believe cannot be achieved by science alone:

1.      To educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in the twenty-first-century democracy;

2.      To foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong; and,

3.      To equip the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.

My interest in this report was heightened by the very first prefatory page. The Commission asks, Who will lead America into a bright future?   Their answer,

Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public, who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders. 

Liberal education and leadership development two of my core values. More about this important report in the coming weeks.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Last week I began sharing the results of a study entitled, “Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad?”  This research was released by the Hamilton Project which is part of the Brookings Institution. The goal of this study was to analyze the effect of starting, but not finishing, a two-year or a four-year college degree. Here is what they found.

Those who started college but did not complete a degree had lifetime earnings of approximately $100,000 more (in present value) than their peers who only completed high school. If analyzed in terms of rate of return rather than actual dollars, the study concluded that some college is a far better investment than any “conventional investment including stocks, bonds, and real estate.”  Of course the study also points out that the return on some college is far less than completing a degree.

The study also finds that there is a correlation between education and employment opportunities. For example, the unemployment rates in April 2013 (based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data) were as follows:

-       Age 25 or older without a high school diploma – 11.4%

-       Age 25 or older with a high school diploma – 7.2%

-       Age 25 or older with an associate’s degree – 5.0%%

-       Age 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher – 3.6%

These disparities are even greater when an analysis is done on the employment-to-population ratio. These data reflect that only 39.9% of all individuals without a high school diploma hold a job; only 54.5% of all individuals with only a high school diploma hold a job; only 68.6% of all individuals with an associate’s degree hold a job; and, 73.2% of all individuals with a bachelor’s degree or higher hold a job.

What is most interesting and unique to this report is the evidence that of those with only some college, 60.9% hold a job. Clearly, some college improves employment opportunities as well as income potential.

The final area addressed by this study is the jobs gap in this country. Since the Great Recession in December 2007, this country has experienced a jobs gap of 9.9 million jobs. Even if job creation reaches the highest levels during the pre-recession years, this gap will not be closed until 2017-2020.

The point made by this study is that with limited job opportunities and a slow recovery, those entering or in the workforce will need the necessary skills and every competitive advantage. Education is definitely a key.

Some people continue to question whether or not college is a good investment. But the data is clear. It is a good investment in terms of job opportunity. It is a good investment in terms of lifetime earnings. And it is a better investment than other conventional investment opportunities. And we haven’t even mentioned the value of a liberal education!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Over the years, I have written about the value of a college degree. Study after study reflects the clear value of earning at least a bachelor’s degree in terms of earnings over a lifetime, professional success, personal satisfaction and levels of community engagement. But a recent study released by the Hamilton Project entitled, “Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad?” piqued my interest.

The Hamilton Project began in 2006 as an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution. It is named after Alexander Hamilton, this country’s first Secretary of the Treasury, who is credited with laying the foundation for the modern American economy.

The Project brings together “leading academics, business people, and public policy makers who wanted to develop a serious, systematic strategy to address the challenges that our economy faces.”  The Project regularly publishes papers and books and sponsors events intended to both inform and encourage the national debate on the nation’s economy including topics like economic security, energy and health care.

Its self-described focus is as follows:

“From its first strategy paper, the Project set forth a clear policy path to promote our nation’s economic health, a strategy based on three interrelated principles: that economic growth must be broad-based to be strong and sustainable over the long term; that economic security and economic growth can be mutually reinforcing; and that an effective government can improve economic performance. These ideas, especially in combination, offer a strikingly different vision from the economic policies that contributed to the alarming trends in rising income inequality and a mounting federal deficit.”

This most recent report analyzed the nation’s employment statistics. As you may recall, 175,000 new jobs were added in May. However, the unemployment rate moved up to 7.6%. According to the Hamilton Project’s analysis, “the broadest measure of employment --- the employment-to-population ratio --- was 58.6%, the same as a year ago. It has remained roughly at the same level since late 2009.”

The report goes on to remind us that the analysis of employment data over the past years has consistently shown two important things:

-       Workers with more education continue to be employed at higher rates than their less educated counterparts; and,

-       Workers with more education continue to earn more than their less educated counterparts.

As so many reports have shown, the rates of return attributed to two-year, four-year and graduate degrees are high.

But “Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad?” asks and answers a very important question… what is the impact for people who start a two-year or four-year degree, but fail to complete their degree program? This question is important in relation to understanding employment data, but also in light of the increasing costs of education and the amount of debt all students incur regardless of the length of their college career.

This study provides very compelling evidence that even just starting college has a positive impact on a person’s career earnings. And next week, I will share more of the details. It will be worth the wait!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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It is interesting the way certain perceptions are difficult to change, even if the perceptions are different than reality. A case in point is the national perception of Congress. Let me explain.

While Washington continues to be a place where decisions come slowly and compromise is rare, there have been some signs of progress in recent weeks. For example, we have witnessed bipartisan cooperation on the issues of immigration and student financial aid. Regardless of your position on the recent revelations of the government’s collection of phone data, I was encouraged to see that the differences of opinion were bipartisan as well.

But a recent Gallup poll would suggest that if what I say is accurate (i.e., reality), it is not reflected in public opinion (i.e., perception). For the 45th consecutive month, the approval rating of Congress is less than 20%.

These results are based on telephone interviews conducted during the first week of June. The study reflects a random sample of 1,529 adults (18 years and older) living in every state and the District of Columbia.

When you read the study carefully, the specific results provide a more complex picture. For example, for those who disapprove of Congress, the majority (59%) do so because of their perceptions of partisan gridlock or ineffectiveness. These levels of disapproval are primarily related to the assessment of “party gridlock/bickering/not compromising” and “not getting anything done/not making decisions.”  When asked to assess Congress’s actions on specific issues, the disapproval numbers are quite low (budget deficit/spending – 6%; healthcare reform – 2%; immigration reform – 2%).

The point is that negative perceptions may relate more to “gridlock fatigue” than to concern about any specific policy issue. This is more true of respondents who self-identified as Democrats than those who self-identify as Republicans. More Republicans cite concerns about the budget and healthcare, but a majority of both groups express overall disapproval.

Another fascinating aspect of this study is that a majority of respondents approve of the performance of their own Congressional representatives.  As Gallup has revealed in prior studies, this correlates to the extremely high percentage of House and Senate members who get re-elected … over and over again.

But one has to wonder why the sum of the parts does not equal the whole? It would seem that this relates to the divided leadership (Democratic Senate and Republican House) where individual members are held less responsible than the entire institution.

I believe that there is some progress being made in bipartisan leadership. I wonder what it will take to convince others. Or maybe … this is not reality … but just my perception!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

I am waiting for the course evaluations from the students who took my leadership class this past Spring semester. Like most professors, I read these assessments carefully so that I can try to improve my classes in the future. Even after 40+ years of teaching, I know I can get better.

Obviously, it is gratifying when students express high degrees of satisfaction with the course. It is especially rewarding when students say that they learned a great deal and the course met or exceeded their expectations. The word that still disappoints me the most is “boring.”

I was intrigued by a review of an article entitled, “Fluency Can be Deceiving: Instructor Fluency Increases Perceptions of Learning without Increasing Actual Learning.” Published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the article summarizes the research of psychologists at Iowa State University and Williams College. I found the complete article and found it fascinating.

The research study compared both the perceptions of learning and the actual learning of students who participated in the same lecture. In one case, the instructor “stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes” (i.e., highly fluent). In the other case, the same material was presented by an instructor who “slumped, looked away and spoke haltingly with notes.”

After each lecture, the students were asked to predict how much they learned from the class session. Specifically, they were asked to predict how much of the content they would recall at a later date.

As you would expect, the students in the “highly fluent” class indicated a much higher expectation of learning. Equally predictable, the students in this class rated their instructor significantly higher indicating that the instructor was more prepared and more effective. But while this instructor was assessed as being less boring, “fluency” did not appreciably impact learning.

Students in both classes were subsequently tested on the content of the lecture. The lecture involved a scientific concept that was explained by the instructor. The actual knowledge (i.e. learning) was virtually the same. When these results were shared, the students who had participated in the more interesting and exciting lecture were both surprised and disappointed. They expected to do better.

The only conclusion reached by these researchers is that student perceptions are based more on “lecture fluency” than “actual learning.”  I have never met a student who didn’t want their professors to be engaging, interesting and dynamic. To be labeled “boring” is never a compliment.

But the most important result of teaching is student learning. And this should be the focus of pedagogical improvement. In commenting on this research, Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard, wrote, “With a better presenter it might seem like you are taking more in, but it doesn't mean that anything has actually been learned -- it doesn't mean there has been an 'Aha!' moment."  

Mazur is an advocate of teaching through “peer instruction.”   In this method, there is more questioning of students during every class to determine more readily if they are both understanding and learning.

Despite this research, I still do not want to be assessed as a boring instructor. But I will work harder in the Fall to make sure my students actually learn!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)