All posts by John Lehman

In Praise of Maintenance

The greatest thing about listening to podcasts on a smartphone with earbuds in is that I can walk my dog on a fall Sunday evening on campus and geek out with no one being any the wiser.  A few nights ago I was listening to a Freakanomics episode called, “In Praise of Maintenance.”

The basic premise of the episode asks, “Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?”  One just needs to look at our country’s roads, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure for evidence that the answer is “Yep, pretty much.”

For all of the glory we give new programs and initiatives, it seems to me might also be well served if we remembered to praise those that keep those new things running; those that make sure the metaphorical zerks are greased, the batteries are charged, and the arteries stay clear. Maintenance here at Michigan Tech comes in all sorts of forms.  It preserves what has been built, whether that be programming, processes, office culture, or websites.

So in this season of thanks, I want to say thank you to those who maintain and keep our new things sustainable.  In particular I’m thinking of the departmental coordinators, front line staff, anyone working with financial aid or immigration compliance, those great folks in the mailroom and print shop, and the SAIS warriors.  These are the people who are focused on taking care of the world we’ve already built here at Tech.  While others are zeroed-in (rightfully) on the new and nifty little thing, the maintainers are the people with the patience, the care, and the compassion for the institution (and for the innovators) who ensure that yesterday’s new and nifty thing stays new and nifty.

I visited with my four year old nephew a few weeks ago and we watched a They Might Be Giants show called Here Comes Science.  They’ve got this song about how important blood cells are to the human body.  The song tells how blood cells bring the oxygen, nutrients, and antibodies to every part of our body and how they even keep our insides clean by helping to haul out the trash.  Blood cells are our body’s maintainers.  And those who help us maintain here at Tech are our life-blood.  They are a life-giving force.  Thank you to those who perform those roles.  We need to give you all more praise and credit.


Student Debt and the $16 Muffin

Dental surgeons must have never had it so good. Given the number of teeth gnashed over college student debt levels in today’s news media, one only hopes today’s top newspaper journalists have decent dental plans. “The college debt crisis is even worse than you think” read the Boston Globe last week. Student loan debt has been type-cast as “bonkers”, a “time-bomb”, a “nightmare”. At the same time it’s blamed for both crippling and gouging college students. It’s even akin to indentured servitude. It ain’t easy being student debt these days. These articles hone in on what is not an insignificant issue. College debt is climbing and there are a healthy number of students who truly are in over their heads. But not everyone. Not even a majority.

About five years ago the country collectively gasped in horror over numerous media reports citing a Justice Department report that apparently uncovered the federal government spending a whopping $16 a piece on breakfast muffins. The body politic seethed with rage. Senator Chuck Grassley called for heads to “roll.” Bill O’Reilly was predictably terror stricken with the news. But after all the muffin crumbles settled, including a formal 151 page investigative report from the Inspector General, it turned out that the $16 wasn’t for just muffins but rather included “other food and beverage items, such as coffee, tea, and fruit, were included in the charged amount.” (Stephen Colbert smartly noted that those 151 pages detailing the exhaustive governmental efforts to review all of this “proved that the federal government wasted no money on those muffins.”)

Student debt has become the muffin-gate of higher education and this sensationalism needs to be tempered with a strong shot of reality. What’s that reality? We can start with a wonderfully named piece from the Hamilton Place Strategies group entitled, “The Plural Of Anecdote Is Data (Except For Student Debt)” Here, this firm writes, “A closer look at some of the particulars around college financing reveals more nuance than overall media coverage has indicated. While tuition has consistently gone up, the net price actually paid has been much flatter as universities offer more tuition assistance and discounts to entice attendance. And while the average amount of debt incurred has been increasing over time, the increase in monthly payments is typically manageable.”

Some are even suggesting that the levels of student debt are actually dragging down the nation’s economy as students with debt are unable to afford to buy homes and automobiles. Susan Dynarski, a faculty member at the University of Michigan and widely recognized as one of the leading experts in higher education financing, college costs, and access issues writes for the Brookings Institution that this simply is not the case. Multiple other studies have supported this finding.  It’s worth noting a few of the major newspaper willing to dig into the nuances of the issue. The Wall Street Journal recently cited a federal reserve bank of Cleveland report which found that the typical student borrower between the ages 20 and 30 pays $203 a month toward student debt. And seventy five percent of borrowers pay no more than $400 a month.

At Michigan Technological University, where I work, last year’s average debt of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree was $36,041. The national average was about $35,000 (note the snarky headline for this article where I found this average). And while Michigan Tech is a bit over the national average, the ability of its graduates to pay down that debt far exceeds the national average.

Collegemeasures.org found that a typical Michigan Tech graduates expends 3.5% of their earnings on college debt repayment. That’s ranked in the top three percent in the country for lowest ratio of debt payment to earnings. What more, that is one percentage point less than the state of Michigan income tax rate of 4.75%. Michigan Tech graduates working in Michigan are paying a larger proportion of their income to the state (who doesn’t exactly have the best track record in providing its support to help students earn their degrees) than they do to pay back their student debt.

Those stories go mostly untold. The media needs to make money. And what bleeds leads. Perhaps the most damning evidence of sensationalism is this finding, again from the Hamilton Place Strategies. After reviewing 100 articles on college debt for 2012 graduates over a three month period, HPS found that the average level of student debt reported in news coverage was $85,400. What was the actual national average for student level debt in 2012? $29,400.

blog-june 2016

And then there is the $1.2 trillion dollars in student debt. The biggest muffin in all the land. It’s the collective sum of all student debt in the country. But scratch just a millimeter beneath the surface of this ubiquitously reported stat and one begins to see a different picture. Forty percent of that 1.2 trillion dollar sum goes towards graduate degrees for people pursuing, for instance, a medical or law degrees. And props to the NYT’s and again, Susan Dynarski, who found that, “The huge run-up in loans and the subsequent spike in defaults have not been driven by $100,000 debts incurred by students at expensive private colleges like N.Y.U. They are driven by $8,000 loans at for-profit colleges and, to a lesser extent, community colleges.”

If we are going to collectively address issues of access, student success, and college financing, we need to start from a place of truth and accuracy. Demonizing higher education using points of fact that are, in fact, without fact muddy the waters and will hold students, who might otherwise benefit from a college education, back from pursuing that education. In today’s knowledge-based economy, we simply can’t afford to have students who would like to pursue an education, decide not to based on incomplete and incorrect assumptions about higher education financing.

Jason Delisle sums it up best when he remarked, “When somebody says student debt is killing the economy, replace ‘student debt’ with ‘higher education’ and see if the sentence still makes sense.”  If there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, let it be over research questions and lab reports in route to a college degree and high paying job, not over undue $16 muffin scented panic regarding student debt.


Residential colleges and universities are ceding the debate with our silence

If there is one thing traditional colleges and universities have failed at it is helping to craft the social narrative about their contribution to the general welfare of society.  It’s not that we’ve done anything wrong as much as we’ve not done anything at all.  Media outlets have thus filled this nothing-at-all-space with almost gleeful stories about the coming higher education disruption bubble.  There is no doubt that there is room for improvement, but American higher education is ceding debate without a fight. Continue reading


More on Michigan Tech and Social Mobility

A survey released earlier this year from insurance firm Haven Life and research organization, YouGov cited that only about 13% of Americans believe that today’s children will be better off financially than they were when their career reached its peak.

There is plenty of evidence to point to which helps substantiate this worry. However, there are outliners. Michigan Tech is one of those outliners. The average household income of Michigan Tech freshmen this fall was about $89,000. Payscale.com surveying indicates that today, Michigan Tech alums at mid-career currently make $99,900. So it’s reasonable to conclude that a Michigan Tech education enables social mobility. Continue reading


STEM and social mobility: Not who you know, but what you know

One of the issues in this upcoming presidential election is that of the shrinking middle class. The Pew Charitable Trusts has found that the middle class has shrunk in every single state between the years of 2000 and 2013. In Michigan, the study found that the median income shrank from inflation adjusted $61,551 in 2001 to $48,273 in 2013.

One can expect to hear common drumbeats from the presidential contenders; from fortifying the minimum wage to decreasing payroll taxes have predictably already been employed in stump speeches. In my view what we don’t hear enough of is the role that a STEM-based education can play in social mobility. Continue reading


A Simplistic, but Foundational Review of Return on Investment

After many years of debate, in September the White House finally released its College Scorecard website. The scorecard includes information about colleges such as six-year graduation rates, retention from freshman to sophomore year, repayment of loans, post-graduation earnings and cost, as well as demographics on the student body, academic programs offered and typical test scores of admitted students.

For people in my profession, one of the best features of the new site is that the complete data set is available for download. Using this data set one can begin to create their own comparative review of colleges and universities. One would expect to see a myriad of websites start to pop up that tap into these data to give the student consumer a set of robust tools to help guide their college search. Continue reading


First Year Retention

Like most institutions, Michigan Tech studies which of our students tend to fair the best academically. One of the ways we measure success is how many of our students persist from their first year to their second year. This metric, called first year retention, can be influenced by all sorts of variables. This past year 87% of our students retained from their first year to their second year.

Recently we asked ourselves, of all of the data points we know about accepted students before they enroll which of those tended to correlate highest with students who persisted from their first year to their second year. We looked at everything students tell us on both the application and in the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA). In addition we reviewed what we know about them from their behavior such as when they applied for admission or if they visited campus. We narrowed down that list to 61 variables and then looked back in history for the last three years to see which of those variables correlated highest with the students who retained from their first year to second. Continue reading


Different Types of Education Debt

There are no shortage of news stories citing that student borrowing (nationally) has surpassed $1.1 trillion. That figure covers every loan from private for-profit trade schools, to community colleges, to non-profit, to public, to grad schools. Borrowing covers education for skills/degrees ranging from beauticians to cardiac surgeons.

A comprehensive study released by Brookings, looks at the characteristics of borrowers, the institutions they attended, and how that contributed to rising loan default rates that are so much a part of the news. Continue reading


ROI on Higher Education

While return on educational investment (ROI) is not everything students and parents look for when they select an institution, it’s certainly more top of mind than it used to be. Payscale has a new interactive webpage to compare 20 year ROI against student loan debt upon graduation. Here I’ve filtered the scatterplot to show only research institution and noted a few stand-outs against Michigan Tech.

ROI