First Person

Commentary: Majors matter

Alexander Ooms is senior fellow at the Donnell-Kay Foundation and a board member of the Charter School Institute, West Denver Preparatory Charter Schools and the Colorado chapter of Stand for Children. This entry is cross-posted from the Donnell-Kay blog.

Film trivia: the movie The Graduate has only one mention of an undergraduate major, and it belongs to the character that is not a graduate.  Mrs. Robinson intended to major in art history, but left college early.  The movie contrasts her unrealized ambitions with the promise of Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman), who has just completed an unspecified degree and has only to decide on which of the many roads to opportunity he wants to travel. Simply being the eponymous Graduate is enough to confer considerable potential.

One of the current mantras of education reform is to give students academic skills to be The Graduate, and to have the opportunity to follow any one of several professional paths. And rightly so, for the modern economy is ruthlessly demanding of ever-greater skills and abilities, and many entry-level jobs now require analytical thought and problem solving commensurate with advanced education.  But while more and more students are attending college, the number that major in areas which hold the most future promise are essentially unchanged. We are getting kids into college, but dropping them off without a map.

The value of a college degree is the focus of a recent report from Georgetown University titled “The College Payoff.”  Over the last decade, the earning premium between a high school and bachelor’s degree has widened, so that on average and over a lifetime, a bachelor’s degree is now worth $2.8 million.  But the report also found that there is an increasing emphasis on what someone studies, and which occupation they pursue.

Earnings rise linearly based on educational degree attained, from under a million dollars for high school dropouts (remember, over 39 years of work) all the way up to lifetime earnings of over $3.6 million if one has a professional degree (law, business, medicine):

However, aside from the general boost in earnings from an advanced degree, other factors mattered as well.  Most of these are ones we are born into: age, gender, and ethnicity.  The other two are ones we control and they are related: degree subject and occupation. What the study also found is that the value of advanced degrees can be tampered – or even trumped — by the subject one studies and the type of work one performs.

Compare the lifetime earnings of two groups of workers with bachelor’s degrees: computer software engineers (average of $3.6 million) and managers of retail stores (average of $1.8 million).  Same degree, but half the earnings.  A college degree gets you in the arena, but it is occupation that confers the best seats.  And the key to many occupations is what one studies.

The report continues:

“Earnings today, then, are driven by a combination of educational attainment and occupation. Some occupational clusters pay better than others— for example, the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] occupations earn much more than teachers, regardless of educational attainment.”

So one might expect that students would be flocking to STEM and similar programs, right?  After all, part of the rationale behind the mantra of college prep, particularly among underserved populations, is that this will increase economic prosperity and mobility, and reduce income inequality.

But as the economist Alex Tabarrok pointed out earlier this year, American students are not pursuing degrees in the fields that have the most demand and economic potential.  Tabarrok looks at the change in college majors over the past 25 years, and what he finds is disconcerting:

Over the past 25 years the total number of students in college has increased by about 50 percent. But the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM fields) has remained more or less constant.

Fifty percent more students, yet the same number majoring in STEM subjects. That’s an astonishing fact.  So what are students studying instead? Well, the number of students majoring in the arts, psychology and communications has more than doubled. And, as the Georgetown study also points out, we have a lot of education majors.

To look at this through the current cultural zeitgeist, here is a blog that lists the majors of the top 1% of earners, based on data from the 2010 American Community Survey. The most common majors among elite earners were neuroscience, economics, public policy (yes, public policy), biochemistry and zoology.  Which college majors are least likely to end up in the 1% pool?  Cosmetology services and culinary arts, teacher education, mechanical engineering related technologies (whatever that is), fine arts and court reporting.  The full table, in excel format, is here.

STEM may be this generation’s version of the “one word: plastics” scene in The Graduate – the advice of an older generation that is utterly meaningless (and perhaps abhorrent) to its descendants. But we increasingly need to make sure students understand that it is not just a college degree, but what that degree is in that determines their professional careers.  We need to not just whisper “plastics”, but to explain that college is only part of the equation. The other part is what you study when you are there. Majors matter.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.