Category Archives: Enrollment

Dear Mr. Barone,

Michael Barone reheats and serves up a plate-full of stale pizza cliché in his June 8 Washington Examiner column claiming people who choose not to go to college might be better off than those who do. (This article was rerun in my local paper, the Daily Mining Gazette on June 10, and this letter is in response to that edition.)

The fact of the matter is, the economy has created 11.6 million jobs since the recovery of the great recession. Ninety-nine percent of those jobs have gone to people with some education, 72 percent have gone to people with a four year degree or better. The Michigan Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives recently found that of the top 50 good paying, growing occupations in the state through 2024, 43 require some college, and 36 require a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Mr. Barone points to rising tuition and administration bloat as two more reasons students should not attend college. Michigan’s House Fiscal Agency found in 2013 that since fiscal year 2001, 80% of tuition price increases are attributable to state funding reductions, and nearly 100 percent when factoring in institutional financial aid. When accounting for inflation, Michigan Tech’s state appropriations are 30 percent lower than they were in 2002, but yet, Michigan Tech is educating 10 percent more students than it was in 2002. Doing 10 percent more with 30 percent less does not suggest Michigan Tech is on a path towards bloat.

Yet still at $63,300 a year, Michigan Tech grads are earning the highest average starting salary of any of the public 15 universities and 10th highest in the nation. Our graduates spend about 3.5 percent of their take home paycheck paying off their student loan, less than Michigan’s state income tax rate of 4.25 percent. And yes, our graduates do pay back as well. Last year, an estimated 1,000 Michigan Tech graduates started their careers in Michigan; earning the average starting salary they will collectively earn over $60 million dollars and pay 2.8 million in state income taxes – in just one year. We suspect that the 23,000 Michigan Tech grads of working age in the state are doing at least as well as this one class.

Michigan Tech is feeding a talent-starved industry sector with the graduates who can develop, understand, apply, manage, and communicate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. As much as Mr. Barone wants to paint all higher education institutions as bastions of leftist idolatry, it’s clear he forgets to assert that the engine of a knowledge-based economy is education.

I wonder if Mr. Barone thinks he would have been better off declining his secondary education at the elite Michigan private high school of Cranbrook (with a current endowment of over $300 million) and as well his college at Harvard ($37 billion endowment) and his law degree from Yale ($1.2 billion endowment). My guess? Probably not.


The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact Word

The Value of STEM Education in an AltFact World: At its very core the scientific method is a market economy, where the currency is truth.

In his book, The Death of Expertise published earlier this year, US Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols laments, “Americans no longer distinguish the phrase ‘you’re wrong’ from the phrase ‘you’re stupid.’ To disagree is to disrespect. To correct is to insult. And to refuse to acknowledge all view as worthy of consideration, no matter how fantastic or inane they are, is to be closed minded.”

For all of the bluster about political correctness, free speech, SJW snowflakes, etc…neither side of the political spectrum has gotten any better hearing the words, “you’re wrong.” In fact, our communication bubbles have become so insular that we rarely take the opportunity to challenge the veracity of that which we are presented. Much has been made about this post-factual world, and post-truth politics. This worldview is one framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.

Psychologists are discovering how we, as humans, come to access, construct and evaluate beliefs. Most of us assume that our sets of beliefs and fundamental knowledge of the world comes to us as a set of constructs grounded in facts. We assemble these facts into structures upon which we build our beliefs. Psychologists are finding something different. Rather than building our beliefs assembled around a set of facts about our world, most of us tend to build our facts around a set of beliefs.

This is not a new concept. Researchers have studied the phenomena of confirmation bias for sometime. Confirmation bias is often defined as “the tendency to seek out information that supports and seemingly validates one’s own viewpoint” One famous example is the “lunar effect.” There are numerous studies that center on emergency room visits correlated with full moon nights. Systematic reviews of this research consistently demonstrate that there is simply no evidence for that the full moon causes an increase in emergency room visits. Why, then, do people continue to believe this? Data show that belief in the lunar effect remains at about 40-45%, even among those highly educated. The answer is simply, confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is found when we notice, accept, and remember information that confirms beliefs we already have, while ignoring, forgetting, or explaining away contradictory data. Belief in a lunar effect, therefore, feeds on itself. Cue the old saw, “the plural of anecdote is not ‘data”

There is probably not a single more visible example of confirmation bias in today’s news than in politics. In a desperate attempt to validate everything about our preferred candidate and discredit all about our opponent’s candidacy, we gather facts that align with our beliefs and tend to discredit the facts that are counter-productive to those thoughts. This has gotten to be so prolific that this year we’ve begun to hear about living in a post-factual world.

So what does this have to do with a STEM based education? Fundamental to a STEM-based education is deep understanding of the scientific method. The scientific method demands that one must suspend belief until data can show that that belief can be embraced.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean that beliefs not supported by fact have no use. Actually, the opposite is true. Those are called hypotheses are as important to the scientific process as the facts themselves. But central to the scientific process is that our beliefs are wrapped around the facts. And what happens when the opposite happens? Sometimes disaster. The space shuttle Challenger for one. In that example, the desire to send up the shuttle loaded with the first teacher in space, was so great, beliefs that the colder temperatures the night before the launch would have no effect on the safety on the launch were bended around the facts.

And this is where STEM education becomes incredibly valuable. Much has been written about the doors STEM education opens, the jobs available to STEM college degree holders, the importance to the country’s global competitiveness that STEM education means. But to a lesser extent do we talk about what the scientific process can teach us within this post-factual world.

The entire exercise of science is figuring out what is true. The scientific method requires one to form a hypothesis, test it, get a result. And then one presents this work to a community of peers whose duty it is to attempt to poke holes in those results, to double check the work. STEM education, the scientific method itself, teaches critical thinking. And, most importantly, STEM education teaches one that the words, “you’re wrong” don’t convey disrespect. They don’t communicate intolerance or close mindedness. They don’t shut down a conversation or open up a flood of superficial anonymous insults in the comments section. In science, “you’re wrong” means progress! Even Jules Verne knew this, “Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”


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