The Master’s Degree Scam

Most aren't worth the paper they're printed on.

Slate’s Jordan Weissmann argues (via Kevin Carey) that “Master’s Degrees Are the Second Biggest Scam in Higher Education,” behind only one-year “certificate” programs at for-profit universities. The claim is over-broad but the actual case is a strong one. His setup:

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published a troubling exposé on the crushing debt burdens that students accumulate while pursuing master’s degrees at elite universities in fields like drama and film, where the job prospects are limited and the chances of making enough to repay their debt are slim. Because it focused on MFA programs at Ivy League schools—one subject accumulated around $300,000 in loans pursuing screenwriting—the article rocketed around the creative class on Twitter. But it also pointed to a more fundamental, troubling development in the world of higher education: For colleges and universities, master’s degrees have essentially become an enormous moneymaking scheme, wherein the line between for-profit and nonprofit education has been utterly blurred. There are, of course, good programs as well as bad ones, but when you scope out, there is clearly a systemic problem.

The WSJ piece didn’t generate much sympathy for the victims, rich kids who spent a lot of their parents’ money or took out lavish loans to pay for degrees in fields with relatively few high-paying jobs and where academic degrees aren’t necessarily that helpful in securing them. But Weissmann uses that as a springboard to discuss a more pernicious trend.

Few have written more convincingly on this topic than Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at New America. As a journalist and think tanker, he’s argued for years that “universities see master’s degree programs as largely unregulated cash cows that help shore up their bottom line,” and shown how even schools like Harvard offer effectively predatory programs. The rise of online learning has only supercharged the problem, by allowing universities to parlay their brands nationally and internationally in order to enroll students at an industrial scale.

This, alas, is not a new problem. A previous employer was profiting handsomely from online masters programs more than two decades ago, leveraging a then-new technology to essentially sell degrees to those, mostly military officers, who were willing to pay for them. I participated in the scheme, at a nice additional income stream, but foolishly tried to offer actual masters-level courses. While a handful of students appreciated getting their money’s worth, most were (in hindsight, rightly) incensed at the social contract being broken: they were expecting to get credits for very little work while pursuing demanding full-time jobs.

It didn’t take long for flagship state universities and, as Weissmann notes, even the Ivies to figure out that, if no-name teaching schools could rake in the cash by selling online masters degrees, those offering more prestigious names on the diploma could really cash in. I’ve known about scams like the Harvard Extension School for years. What I didn’t know was this:

In 2019, Carey took a long, dispiriting look at the rise of so-called online program managers, or OPMs—the private companies like 2U that major universities from Yale to small schools like Oregon’s Concordia University use to build their online offerings. These companies design and operate courses on behalf of schools—sometimes essentially offering a class in a box—that the university can slap its branding on. The OPM then takes as much as 70 percent of tuition revenue. That money is largely being funded with government loans, which may never be paid back.

Now, even though she has worked at institutions that engaged in this very practice, my wife would want me to tell you that online learning, done right, can be outstanding. It is possible to deliver education comparable to the in-person experience via the Internet, either synchronously, asynchronously, or a hybrid. And she’s right. The problem is that it is a whole lot more work to pull off than in-person. And it’s hard to do it in person. And these institutions aren’t interested in putting in that work. They just want the cash. (And, in the case of Harvard Extension School, they barely pretend otherwise and very much insist that graduates not claim to have, say, “A Harvard MBA” but rather a degree in “Extension Studies.” Let me assure you that I encounter people regularly who claim to be Harvard graduates who actually just have a HES certificate.)

In a back-and-forth with Weissmann, Carey observes,

In some ways, they’re more similar [to the aforementioned certificate programs] than they might seem. Many of them are one-year certificate programs. We don’t call them that. We call them master’s degrees, but that’s part of the problem. They are in fact often one-year job-oriented programs that are heavily debt-financed, marketed very aggressively through online web advertising. They purport to provide very specific economic opportunities in a given field. It’s just one are being marketed to students who just graduated from high school and the other are being marketed to people who just graduated with bachelor’s degrees, but other than that, they’re kind of the same.

[…]

The Columbia School of Journalism offers what is essentially a 10-month master’s degree that costs $70,000 or something like that. It starts in September, ends in June. You can only do so much in less than a year. It’s completely a career-oriented degree. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of [career-oriented] programs out there.

One of the reasons that universities are able to be exploitative in the master’s degree market is because they’re not constrained in the same way that they are in the market for bachelor’s degrees. If you’re offering bachelor’s degrees, they all have to be four years long. You don’t have a two-year bachelor’s degree or a six-year bachelor’s degree. You have to publicly publish your acceptance rates, your average SAT scores, so to the extent that you’re selling selectivity, you actually have to back it up with data, whereas in the master’s degree market, you can call almost anything a master’s degree. Master’s degree programs do not have to publish their admission statistics, which creates, I think, an enormous temptation for institutions that have very attractive brand names, that are attractive in no insignificant part because their undergraduate programs are very selective, to open up the floodgates on the master’s side and pay no penalty in the market because people don’t know they’re doing it.

There’s a lot more to the piece. Essentially, Carey argues that ALL master’s degree programs should be regulated as for-profit programs. I wouldn’t go that far but I do think it’s true that, with the exception of degrees offered on campus by schools of education (that translate directly into higher salaries for public schoolteachers) and a relative handful of prestige journalism, business, and public policy degrees, most masters programs are suspect, at least if the measure is the likelihood of translating into a better-paying job.

While I would typically argue that this really isn’t the mission of higher education, it’s hard to argue for education for education’s sake at the graduate level. There is next to no utility to a master’s degree in English, political science, history, economics, or most of the other humanities and social sciences; there, the doctorate is the practitioner’s degree. It’s probably more valuable in the STEM fields.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Academia, Education, Higher Ed
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Other than a source of revenue for the institutions offering them they mostly function as a way of differentiating the bearers from the holders of the mostly worthless bachelors degrees. Those are only worthwhile because they’ve been deemed so, not because they hold any objective meaning. The entire push to get everyone college-educated has been a mistake, cargo cult thinking.

    Oh, people will point to the difference in lifetime earnings between those with high school only and those with college educations but they routinely ignore something important: variations WITHIN those groups. Once you’ve discounted graduates of prestigious institutions, medical doctors, and a few others the higher education premium has largely vanished.

    As a reality check look at how few Germans have formal education other than vocational training beyond the 10th grade.

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  2. CSK says:

    A Ph.D. in the humanities or any social science subject is pretty much useless for getting a job outside of academe. It may, in fact, be a real deterrent. Employers outside of colleges and universities tend to see those who hold doctorates as lone wolves who won’t be good team players, or who’ll act as if they’re smarter than everyone else. And a Ph.D. is “seen as a teaching degree,” as one tech friend told me.

    There’s been an oversupply of Ph.D.s and an undersupply of academic positions for ages. Among my friends are a possessor of a doctorate in history who became a wine merchant and a doctorate in English literature who became a victim/witness advocate. Three others went to law school.

    Just my experience. I was probably lucky to get the academic jobs I did.

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  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    @CSK:

    When I was in grad school in the middle 70’s, a joke in Boston was about Cambridge’s Ph.D taxi company. No such biz existed of course, but the there were persistent rumors about the number of Ph.D’s driving cabs in Cambridge.

    Glad I didn’t follow the encouragement of my adviser to pursue a Ph.D. It was an easy path for me to avoid, but it was an ego booster that he considered that I would have been a good candidate.

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  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m amused by the idea of spending 300K to learn screenwriting, or any kind of writing. All that money to learn to write like everyone else.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    I once walked by the cab stand in Harvard Square and glanced idly at one of the cars. The driver was a bearded guy in a tweed sports coat smoking a pipe and reading The Kenyon Review.

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Agreed. But for a time, there was some advantage for novelists in having attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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  6. alkali says:

    It’s a shame as the online programs can be quite decent. I’ve been enrolled for the past few years in a master’s program in Greek and Latin. The total cost of the program will be about $25K, which seems fair. The students are primarily (1) high school Latin teachers who are seeking a further credential with a mix of (2) others exploring the possibility of further grad studies and (3) dilettantes who can afford the modest tuition, a/k/a my lot. The courses are typically a mix of translation and seminar-style discussion for which online classes are well suited.

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  7. I suppose the degree to which (no pun intended) that the piece of paper leads to or aids pursuit of employment, it is worth something. One can make a lot of the same arguments, as Dave Shuler alludes, about bachelor’s degrees.

    Indeed, this all sounds a lot like most “is college worth it” discussions. Ultimately it depends on whether you end up employed at the end or not and how much debt you have when you are done (and I would also not that that too many of these stories focus on the elite schools and their especially high tuitions–but I will add that higher ed in general is too expensive–but that is largely a policy choice made by state governments).

    As a friend who wants to make a career shift discovered lately, a lot of jobs use master’s degrees as sorting devices (just as they do for BAs). Heck, my Dad (who is well retired) found this is to be an issue in business that he complained about back in the 1980s. He had a BA but as his career (he was a corporate accountant) progressed more and more people had master’s degrees, which often gave them competitive edges for employment and advancement.

    In short: a lot of this is synergy between employers and universities (I am not sure who is blame the most). Industry has more and more outsourced training to higher ed (this is part of how the for-profits prey on people). Things like “Certificates” are pushed by industry and by state governments who want “workforce development” programs.

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  8. George says:

    Master’s degrees in engineering are usually considered worthwhile, enough so that many companies will encourage (and give time) for engineers with bachelor’s to take their masters.

    Furthermore, if you’re accepted into a masters program in engineering (or any of the physical sciences) not only are there quite a few scholarships available, your TA’s and RA’s will more than cover the cost of studies (tuition and housing). You’ll lose money compared to the two years of engineering salary lost, but often make that up quickly.

    Phd’s in engineering on the other hand are rarely worth it — they can even make you less hirable, since companies assume you want to end up in research and on a very specific topic.

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  9. @alkali:

    It’s a shame as the online programs can be quite decent.

    They very much can be. Online can be a very efficacious modality for teaching and learning.

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  10. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    As a friend who wants to make a career shift discovered lately, a lot of jobs use master’s degrees as sorting devices (just as they do for BAs).

    This was very much the case for me. I did a one year, Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (or MAPSS) at the University of Chicago. It definitely was a money maker for the school. Most of the students had applied to PhDs across the Social Sciences and were deferred into this program. I, however, was one of the folks who applied directly (in part because I wasn’t sure a PhD was right for me).

    It was a residency degree and generally speaking, as easy or as intense as you chose to make it. The U of C is a quarter system school which I think is necessary to make a 1 year program make sense.

    The rational was that folks who graduated from MAPSS had a better chance of getting into a good PhD program (which was often the case) or could use it to change careers. Ultimately it allowed me to do both. And when I left Cornell without a PhD, it was the MAPSS degree (along with past experience) that allowed me to start my current career in Design Research.

    @CSK:

    A Ph.D. in the humanities or any social science subject is pretty much useless for getting a job outside of academe.

    I’m going to take issue with this. Ph.D.’s in the social sciences can be very useful outside of Academia. The thing is you have to know the right fields and the right way to position your skills.

    The larger issues are (1) Ph.D. programs continue to accept grad students at unsustainable rates for the academic job market (because they need grad students to function, and (2) those programs (and professional societies) are absolutely shit at support students who don’t want to go into academia (despite constant panels on “the precarity of academics” at their national conferences — I’ve been on a few of those and refuse to do them anymore).

    I regularly get asked to speak on the topic (and design/ux research opportunities) and regularly mentor Ph.D. students looking to make the jump. I’m glad to say most of the folks I’ve helped have landed on their feet thanks to their ability to translate their skills to working at places like Facebook, Google, and elsewhere. And the reality is that those folks with Ph.D.’s will often end up out-earning me because that degree carries real cache.

    The problem isn’t the degree so much as the programs that are teaching it and their general unwillingness to really embrace alternative futures for their students.

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  11. CSK says:

    @mattbernius:
    I’m glad this is the case now, at least for social sciences Ph.D.s. But bear in mind that Google and Facebook didn’t exist, at least not as the powerhouses they are now, until fairly recently.

    Tufts University, where I once taught, stopped awarding Ph.D.s in German language and literature sometime in the 1980s, I think. The reason? There were no jobs for them in academe and none outside it. They now have master’s candidates in conjunction with the education dept. who will go on to teach in secondary schools.

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  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: At Woosong during the time I was there, we had about 10 Ph.Ds or equivalents in fields including Anthropology, Political Science and Art History. Three had Ed.Ds in curriculum and educational leadership. All of them were teaching level one conversation classes mostly, just as I was, and most of them were in Korea for the same reason I was, too,–they’d run out of job options in the States. But the type of degree inflation that this post is discussing has been going on quite some time. At the 2-year that I taught at before I left for Korea, you need to be a doctoral candidate (abd) at a minimum to be considered for a tenured teaching post, and all teachers in K-12 need to complete their Master’s degrees within 2 or 3 years of hire as full-time.

    And as Martin Mull asked on Politically Incorrect all those years ago (I hadn’t completed my thesis yet) “When everyone has a Master’s degree, who will sweep the floor?”

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    I wish there was a way to remove the post hoc ergo propter hoc problem of credentialing and look at the actual value of education in and of itself. I tend to be skeptical (you may not have noticed) when it comes to formal education outside of STEM fields. What I need in order to understand this is a way to assess the real world value of education setting aside sorting.

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  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    efficacious modality

    You need a PhD in order to be allowed to drop that into casual conversation.

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  15. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Someday I’ll write an article entitled “The Hermeneutics of Transgressive Post-Modernism.”

    No, I won’t.

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  16. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “I’m amused by the idea of spending 300K to learn screenwriting, or any kind of writing. All that money to learn to write like everyone else.”

    I can’t say I know any students who have shelled out anywhere near 300k for their graduate education… and I can introduce you to dozens of students who graduated from my program and have had books on best seller lists or writing gigs in TV. Would some of them have made it without the education we provided? Possibly. I know that it would have taken me years longer to get my career started — if it ever started at all — had I not studied under Richard Walter at UCLA.

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  17. wr says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “I suppose the degree to which (no pun intended) that the piece of paper leads to or aids pursuit of employment, it is worth something. One can make a lot of the same arguments, as Dave Shuler alludes, about bachelor’s degrees.”

    As I tell my MFA students, the best thing about our degree is that it’s worthless. Unless you are in an extremely specific situation — an experienced, produced or published writer who wants a teaching gig and needs a terminal degree to be considered qualified by academia — waving our piece of paper in anyone’s face gets you nothing but a cool breeze. So if you are laying out the roughly $120K it costs for our 9-quarter program, you need to know that the only thing of value you’ll be taking away is the education you get. (And the contacts you make, but I would never try to sell a program on that — too much like “ticket to the big bucks.”)

    Over the 13 years we’ve existed, we’ve done pretty well — lots of published books, lots of writers working in TV. Because we exist for one simple reason — to accept good writers and help them become much better writers.

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  18. CSK says:

    @wr:
    Not disputing you–I know successful screenwriters who were also products of UCLA–but there’s a BIG, BIG difference between getting your master’s at UCLA and from FlybyNiteUniversity.com’s online screenwriting master’s degree.

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  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    The flip side is unmeasurable, or at least unmeasured: how many people were turned off by formal education who might otherwise have succeeded? I have no idea if that’s a large number or just a sample of one. Updike was quite well-educated, Hemingway had high school. Both worked in an era before credentialing had the weight it has now.

    My personal experience is that what formal education I acquired depressed imagination, and imagination is rather important. I see it in kids: at four they all have imaginations, by middle school few do, and by the time they head off to college imagination has been effectively crushed. OTOH my wife’s doing rather well despite following the more traditional path through BA*. My tentative conclusion, in the absence of useful data, is: different strokes for different folks.

    I rarely read kidlit unless I have to blurb something, but what I keep seeing is clone jobs, usually cloning Suzanne Collins, occasionally clones of Stephanie Meyer or JKR or Leigh Bardugo. The ratio of clones to originals is at least 20 to 1. What’s missing isn’t skills, it’s imagination, basic story-telling.

    *Although, can you really call a degree from the University of Texas an education?

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  20. @Michael Reynolds:

    You need a PhD in order to be allowed to drop that into casual conversation.

    More specifically, and perhaps more sadly, one has to be a university administrator to deploy such a phrase 😉

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  21. @Michael Reynolds:

    *Although, can you really call a degree from the University of Texas an education?

    Probably. But no doubt, one’s mileage may vary.

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  22. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I tend to be skeptical (you may not have noticed) when it comes to formal education outside of STEM fields. What I need in order to understand this is a way to assess the real world value of education setting aside sorting.

    Working in STEM I can say without a doubt that the people in STEM would do better with a broader education — at least the software folks. All the hard problems above a certain level are human problems and business problems, and a class in digital circuit design where you are laying out chips on a breadboard doesn’t help.

    If you switch jobs every three years (common in software), and have to learn a new business domain and set of business problems, learning how to learn something outside of your wheelhouse becomes much more important than what the content you learned was. The random classes in French literature, medieval Japanese history and anthropology of various hominids are what teaches that.

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  23. Michael Reynolds says:

    And then there’s the case of the single writer whose oeuvre*, whose fertile imagination, has created more economic value than any other. I refer of course to Stan Lee. High school diploma. Partnered of course with Jack Kirby who, as far as I can tell, did a week of college.

    *A word used exclusively by auto-didacts.

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  24. CSK says:

    @Gustopher:
    Almost nothing I’ve learned, including about the literature of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Scotland, has been wasted, I have yet to find a use in my day-to-day life for quadratic equations.

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  25. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Not necessarily only by auto-didacts. 😀

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  26. Nightcrawler says:

    Even in STEM, Ph.D.’s aren’t necessary outside of academia or high-level research, like if you want to work at NASA or in R&D for a pharmaceutical company.

    I say “aren’t necessary” instead of “worthless” because I don’t think any education is “worthless.”

    I work in cybersecurity, and I use my MBA every day. This goes back to what Gustopher said about business problems.

    Interestingly, Robert Herjavec’s undergrad is in English lit, and he’s said that he uses his degree every day. He feels it taught him problem-solving, critical thinking, and communications skills, all of which are more important to cybersecurity than technology. That’s because:

    1) The technology changes every damn day.
    2) If you have all those soft skills, you can keep learning the technology.
    3) Cybersecurity is about people and problem-solving. The technology is just a tool.

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  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK:

    No, I won’t.

    Good choice. By now, your article would be the second one on that topic. 😀 😉 .

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  28. Teve says:

    @CSK: as a long-time math tutor, i Do think there’s too much emphasis on advanced algebra in high school, i’d replace a lot of it with an emphasis on probability and statistics, which is about how to interpret information the average person sees every week*. But the explanation I’ve heard for things like roots of quadratics is that it forces you to think logically about an abstract thing you can’t relate to. Whether it does that, idk.

    *omigod! Did you hear that Newdrugazine doubles your risk of thyroid cancer??? I can’t believe my asshole doctor put me on it!
    Narrator: Newdrugazine doubles your risk of thyroid cancer from one-in-a-million, to two-in-a-million.

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  29. JKB says:

    Well, the undergraduate programs are dumping out a lot of graduates who have not improved their economic value. And that, of course, is the point of fields of study that have intrinsic value, such as the liberal arts. In the past, the BA did at least develop writing and speaking skills, but such teaching fell out of favor in the English departments 40 years ago. Much to the lament of the professors in other departments the depended on students writing papers or giving presentations. They had to grammar as well as their course content. So the recent graduate from college looks to the master degree to finally achieve some relevance. An error, except in highly bureaucratic fields such as K-12 education, government, etc.

    But it is quite a different thing under the rising tide of bureaucratization. Government jobs offer no opportunity for the display of personal talents and gifts. Regimentation spells the doom of initiative. The young man has no illusions about his future. He knows what is in store for him. He will get a job with one of the innumerable bureaus, he will be but a cog in a huge machine the working of which is more or less mechanical. The routine of a bureaucratic technique will cripple his mind and tie his hands. He will enjoy security. But this security will be rather of the kind that the convict enjoys within the prison walls. He will never be free to make decisions and to shape his own fate. He will forever be a man taken care of by other people. He will never be a real man relying on his own strength. He shudders at the sight of the huge office buildings in which he will bury himself.

    –von Mises, Ludwig (1945). Bureaucracy

    And yes, a few will rise to be bureaucrat in chief of their little realm, if they gain the favor of those now in power over them.

    But it is an old problem, a century ago, questions arose, but the universities went for the cash from “degree-hunters’ instead of the scholarship. And the “degree-hunter” ranks swelled instead of petering out.

    The university part of our mixed institutions consists of a graduate school, devoted to teaching and to research, certain professional schools in law, medicine, engineering, teaching, and, in some institutions, to theology. The graduate schools, apart from the professional schools, have suffered in considerable measure from the fact that they have been attended by a large body of students who are not primarily scholars or investigators. For the last twenty or thirty years every ambitious American college has felt that it could not maintain fair academic dignity unless its teachers were able to write after their names Ph.D. The graduate schools have been invaded, therefore, during the comparatively short period of their existence by an army of degree-hunters who desired the degree of Doctor of Philosophy as a preliminary to obtaining positions as teachers.

    The mingling of college and university has its disadvantages for the undergraduate college no less than for the graduate university to which it is bound. The most serious is the weakening of the college sense of responsibility for good teaching. A false notion of research in the conglomerate institution has gone far to discredit the good teacher and to weaken the appreciation of the fact that the chief duty of the college is to teach.
    –Are Our Universities Overpopulated? BY HENRY S. PRITCHETT, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Scribner’s Magazine Vol. 73, 1923

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  30. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Only the second??????

    @Teve:
    There are also many other ways to learn abstract thinking. And yes, more emphasis on probability and statistics would likely be a very good idea.

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  31. Stormy Dragon says:

    @CSK:

    Success in commercial art is as much about connections as it is about skill, and the value in those elite programs isn’t the degree itself, but access to people who, if they take a liking to you, can bring you to the attention of the right people to get your career started (e.g. the reason a masters in drama at Julliard in the 70s was so valuable wasn’t because Julliard taught better, it’s because it meant you go a lot of time to interact personally with John Houseman)

    Now obviously, if you’re a terrible artist, they’re not going to be interested and getting the attention of the right people won’t amount to anything. But the good writers who get noticed aren’t any better than a legion of writers who are just as good but live their lives in obscurity.

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  32. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    Do you ascribe your inability to think to poor education?

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  33. CSK says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    You’ll get no disagreement from me.

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  34. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Success in commercial art is as much about connections as it is about skill.

    I know a lot of people who spend a lot of time and money making connections. There’s a whole industry of seminars and conferences and workshops. The net effect is pretty small.

    But the good writers who get noticed aren’t any better than a legion of writers who are just as good but live their lives in obscurity.

    It’s certainly not a perfect meritocracy by any means, but in general the people who succeed can do the work but have other attributes which, added to talent, help them succeed. Good work habits, resilience, adaptability, etc… To the extent that many writers lack those additional skills you can’t really say they’re just as good, can you?

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  35. Michael Cain says:

    @Teve:

    But the explanation I’ve heard for things like roots of quadratics is that it forces you to think logically about an abstract thing you can’t relate to. Whether it does that, idk.

    The math curriculum is driven historically almost entirely by the needs of traditional engineering students: algebra, trig, and the rest of pre-calc in high school, then the standard college sequence of calculus, linear algebra, and intro to differential equations. You can add basic probability and statistics to that, but you won’t ever be allowed to drop the traditional classes.

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  36. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    My example would be David Benioff, who is a thoroughly mediocre writer and doesn’t seem to be a particularly hard worker, but managed to get his big break because his parents and several other family members were really high up in the world of finance and where able to get his stuff seen by the right people.

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  37. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Ok. You win that point.

    That fukkin guy.

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  38. CSK says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Again, you’re right about this, but beyond the connections factor, there’s a real thirst for lousy writing on the part of the public. Try reading books by some of the authors who are routinely Number One on the NYTime bestseller list. “Abysmal” doesn’t begin to describe this stuff. Yet it gets gobbled up by readers.

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  39. wr says:

    @CSK: “but there’s a BIG, BIG difference between getting your master’s at UCLA and from FlybyNiteUniversity.com’s online screenwriting master’s degree.”

    Definitely agree with that. And double that with a bunch of crappy low-residency MFAs. (I personally think the low-res model is pretty ideal for teaching creative writing, but if you’re looking at, say, the University of Maine, and no one who teaches there has ever worked in the industry, it’s probably going to be mostly a waste of money…) You want to look for a program where the majority of teachers are working professionals in their field. If you’re just getting taught by people who have gained they knowledge by watching movies and reading books, you might as well just join a writers group and save your money…

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  40. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “I rarely read kidlit unless I have to blurb something, but what I keep seeing is clone jobs, usually cloning Suzanne Collins, occasionally clones of Stephanie Meyer or JKR or Leigh Bardugo. The ratio of clones to originals is at least 20 to 1. What’s missing isn’t skills, it’s imagination, basic story-telling.”

    Sure, the skills aren’t missing — because the people you’re reading have enough skills to get published! And of course you’re right there’s a lot of junk out there — that’s true in books and movies and music and food and everything else.

    I won’t argue against your own experience. And of course there are people who are turned off by formal education. People are different and need different things. Those who are like you should avoid the hell out of an MFA program. But I have worked with a lot of writers who came into the program with a vision and a voice, but were still raw and unready. Some of them definitely would have figured it out along the way; others might have hit wall after wall and finally given up.

    What we look for when we admit a student is not the skills, but the spark. The former we can help with — the latter they’ve got to bring on their own…

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  41. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    I’ve been in the unwelcome position of having to judge the work of various Hollywood writers, lately. (Some of my wife’s stuff, some of our joint IP). I sat through a pitch from a couple of writers (being circumspect here) who had just come from a movie where their work was absolutely eviscerated by critics (justifiably) and their involvement in that movie was their big selling point. It was like, “Ooooh, they wrote XXX!” Yes, they did, and it sucked balls.

    Hollywood is quite Orwellian. It’s de rigueur to praise everyone for everything. The thinking seems to be, “We smeared ourselves with shit, but we got a movie made!” Yes, you got a movie made, a vastly inferior copy of a better writer’s work. There are a lot of lousy writers making a living in Hollywood.

    Then again, there are some TV writers (Alena Smith, Michael Schur, Iannucci , the Kings and more) I admire the fuck out of, people who can write things I can’t touch. Unfortunately the demand for good TV writers far exceeds the supply.

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  42. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “I refer of course to Stan Lee.”

    I’m a great admirer of Stan. It was my pleasure to work with him on several occasions. But I have to say his new biography shows him in a very different light and strongly suggests he pretty much checked out creatively sometime in the mid-60s, while happily slapping his name on just about everything.

    The saddest revelation, if true, is that for all his hype, he never really respected what Marvel was doing, thought comic books were a dead end, and constantly yearned for something respectable. How sad to have been an integral part of something so important and not be able to see its true value.

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  43. CSK says:

    @wr:
    I once had a colleague who wrote fiction solely for the purpose of getting tenure. She furthermore professed amazement to me that “regular people” might read her work because it was, as she described it, “very literary, slow, and boring.”

    I’ve never forgotten that, neither the notion of writing not because you love to do it but as a means of getting tenure, nor the idea that in order to be literary, something has to be “slow and boring.”

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  44. wr says:

    @Stormy Dragon: “(e.g. the reason a masters in drama at Julliard in the 70s was so valuable wasn’t because Julliard taught better, it’s because it meant you go a lot of time to interact personally with John Houseman)”

    Robin Williams used to do a riff on his time there, accompanied by a perfect Houseman imitation. “Mr. Williams, the theatre needs you. I’m going off to sell Volvos.” (It helps if you can hear Houseman saying that…)

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  45. Michael Reynolds says:

    @wr:
    Well, that’s depressing. Stan Lee’s work generated, what, 100 billion in IP? Although self-loathing and writing are frequent dance partners. Which helps explain the drinking.

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  46. George says:

    @Gustopher:

    In my experience you’re right about needing more than technical skills (unless you’re truly a one in ten thousand absolutely brilliant and creative engineer, in which case you may well lack social skills but no one will care because you come up with so many good ideas and designs that they’ll happily put you in a room by yourself and dump money on you — money that you may never get around to spending because you’re too busy playing with technology). However from what I’ve seen the engineers with the social skills most companies want usually get them from actually doing things with people (everything from playing in a band to sports teams to travel) or at least having friends from a wide range of backgrounds. If nothing else, as a student you’re usually so busy with labs and problem assignments that there’s little time to absorb the kinds of things you’d hope to get from classes like the ones you describe.

    The importance of meeting real people from diverse backgrounds, rather than just taking humanity courses, is one of the reasons so many high tech companies value employee diversity. As an interesting aside, humanities professors tend to have a much worse reputation among their graduate students than science professors – they tend to be more autocratic, less willing to give the student time, and generally less interested in their graduate students. The reason for that is probably the obvious — science graduate students run most of the actual experiments, so there’s a real need for professors to keep them happy and productive. But it suggests that when it comes to dealing with people, real life needs and experiences are more important than theoretical knowledge.

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  47. wr says:

    @CSK: “I once had a colleague who wrote fiction solely for the purpose of getting tenure. She furthermore professed amazement to me that “regular people” might read her work because it was, as she described it, “very literary, slow, and boring.””

    Well, this person was a moron. And whoever published her was a moron.

    Our program works differently. We love our students who write literary fiction — which does not mean slow and boring to us — but we welcome aspiring genre writers as well. Our fiction faculty includes Stephen Graham Jones, who might be the most acclaimed horror writer now publishing and Mark Haskell Smith, whose comedic thrillers rival Carl Hiaasen’s.

    I remember years ago our program director was describing our approach at an AWP convention. Someone stood up in the audience and shouted that he was destroying literature and the academy. Our PD commented “spoken by someone who hasn’t had a book inside Barnes and Noble in decades” and went on with his presentation.

    We aim to develop professional writers.

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  48. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Well, that’s depressing.”

    Tell me about it. I read it months ago and it still bugs me!

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  49. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    There was an articled in the old Saturday Review entitled “Drink: The Curse of the Writing Class.” It was riveting, but depressing as hell.

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  50. CSK says:

    @wr:
    I heartily applaud UCLA’s approach. As I mentioned, I’ve known a bunch of good people who’ve gone there.

    As for the moron, her publisher is Little, Brown. Little Fucking Brown. A real prestige house. God only knows what they saw in her work.

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  51. Michael Grant says:

    @CSK:
    I suspect this is true of all ‘creatives’ but writing requires you to fuck with your own mind. You have serious relationships with people who don’t exist. People you made up. And yet people who – as I suspect you know – have a tendency to go off and do things you didn’t intend them to do. You spend your day wondering how to make a creepy idea even creepier. I lay in the pool the other day and for half an hour just choreographed a gruesome pool-based murder with a twist. Which has no use for me at all.

    Worst of all, at least for me, is that a writer may start seeing everyday life as a series of Chekov’s guns, endless foreshadowing. And of course you dive into the emotion of all that edge-of-tragedy foreshadowing because you want to know how it will feel when your child gets cancer, or your wife gets cancer, or you get cancer, or the dog gets cancer. Or everyone in the world but you gets cancer.

    If I wake up in the night (pro tip: all men over 60 wake up) it’s an hour minimum of what if this happens, what if that happens? How exactly would the dialog sound? No, no, that’s cliché, let’s try something else. But you can’t just throw the switch on all that, because all that is how you make a living. You rely on that endless flow of ‘what ifs.’

    So for me it’s single malt when I’m not dieting, Bourbon when I am. For the sweetness. Alcohol turns down the volume.

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  52. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    And this isn’t just art, most of the world works this way: most jobs for scientists don’t need an Einstein, most jobs for engineers don’t need a Kelly Johnson, most jobs for Programmers don’t need an Alan Turing. They just need an average person in that field, so once you pass a certain level of minimum acceptable proficiency, success has more to do with luck and connections than performance.

    Of course, successful people don’t really like to think of themselves as just lucky, so they over-estimate the effect talent and hard work played (but really, who doesn’t work hard? And at least on a pure physical labor level, success tends to mean working less hard, not more)

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  53. mattbernius says:

    @wr:

    But I have to say his new biography shows him in a very different light and strongly suggests he pretty much checked out creatively sometime in the mid-60s, while happily slapping his name on just about everything.

    The saddest revelation, if true, is that for all his hype, he never really respected what Marvel was doing, thought comic books were a dead end, and constantly yearned for something respectable.

    Generally speaking this is a pretty accurate read of him based on most accounts. The only thing I’d say is he really checked out in the late 60’s.

    Additionally, it’s worth noting that Stan Lee’s true talent was helping connect the dots on what Kirby and others were plotting. The more you reread those issues you get a sense of how much he and Kirby (and Ditko) were often operating against each other. In many cases though, I think Stan’s instincts were often right. But it’s also that tension that led to both Kirby and Lee leaving Marvel (and leading to really biting takes on Lee like “Funky Flashman*”).

    Lee was without a doubt creative. But often his focus was so much more on marketing and trying to monetize the IP than it was on actually creating IP (which is why he doesn’t really have any meaningful creations before or after the Kirby/Ditko early Marvel period).

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  54. SC_Birdflyte says:

    I would disagree with you that “the doctorate is the practitioner’s degree” in fields like history, English, or economics (among others). My experience in teaching at the community college level seems to me to confirm that a doctorate adds little or nothing to a master’s. The doctorate is a research credential. To take one example with which I’m familiar, in the French universities, one only earns the terminal degree docteur-es-lettres after a research and writing period of 10 or 20 years, during which time one is also teaching full-time. And universities have their own hierarchies. When I was at Yale, one could earn an M.A. in history by completing two years of coursework, plus passing a minor field comprehensive exam. You could also earn an M.Phil. by doing those things, plus submitting an approved dissertation prospectus and passing your major field oral board. So not all Master’s degrees are equally worthless, although I agree that it is the case for a lot of the ones earned nowadays.

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  55. CSK says:

    @Michael Grant:

    “You have serious relationships with people who don’t exist.” Damn, that is so true.

    As for writing itself, Marge Piercy spoke for me: “You have to like it better than being loved.”

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  56. Teve says:

    @George: Bell labs had a reputation for all these breakthroughs and when people looked into it it came from a handful of superstars, most engineers were mediocre, some of them were terrible, but a handful really blew the roof off. So a lot of work and time was spent figuring out what made those superstars different. Did they come from the most elite universities? Have the highest GPA‘s? Have the most degrees? Older? Younger? Rich? Poor, etc. What they finally concluded was the superstar engineers had a wider social network of colleagues in all kinds of different fields. So if they were working on a problem, and maybe there was something about the metal they didn’t understand, they could go to their friend Harvey who is a metallurgist. Or if a problem had some bit of chemistry they didn’t know they could go find Brad who was a PhD chemist. It wasn’t individual brilliance or hard work etc., it was how many different people you could potentially pull in to help you with your problems.

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  57. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: For people who successfully passed logic classes where the subject was taught significantly as math-based computations, probably. Still, the emphasis on math was driven by significant forces that had the goal of identifying every potential engineer in the nation because Russia (!!!!) had beaten us to outer space. And in that goal, it succeeded spectacularly. By the time that I graduated from high school, the nation had so many engineers that I realized that becoming one was a potential dead end. (Note: I grew up in Seattle, so nearly everyone that I ever met who worked in engineering had been laid off by Boeing at least once in their career. I still think that STEM/STEAM are gimmicks designed to create larger surplus employment pools in skill professions. I learned well.)

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  58. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Yes, you got a movie made, a vastly inferior copy of a better writer’s work.

    Hollywood actually prefers the inferior copy. Good enough, but cheaper is more profitable.

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  59. Michael Cain says:

    @Teve: I worked at Bell Labs at the end of its glory days. It was astounding what sorts of expertise you could find. And weird side interests. One of the world’s top experts in flavors that rodents find attractive and unattractive was a hell of a juggler.

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  60. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @wr: A couple of decades back, the local community college was gifted some recording equipment. The forward thinking president of the college decided that this was the perfect occasion to inaugurate a program in recording engineering. The fact that students were roughly 1000 miles from the nearest place where there was a recording industry made employability (even as unpaid interns) an obstacle that the school couldn’t overcome and it had to abandon the program before the inaugural student body even completed their coursework. (Most of them were guys with garage bands who wanted to learn to self-produce/promote, so the collapse of the program passed uneventfully.)

    Yeah. Geography plays a role. Probably an outsized one.

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  61. Michael Cain says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Note: I grew up in Seattle, so nearly everyone that I ever met who worked in engineering had been laid off by Boeing at least once in their career. I still think that STEM/STEAM are gimmicks designed to create larger surplus employment pools in skill professions. I learned well.

    From time to time I see articles bemoaning China graduating more engineering students than the US. I am always inclined to point out that the thing the authors of those pieces should really be worrying about is China is finding long-term stable engineering jobs for those graduates. They’re not building financial trading algorithms that run microseconds faster than the competition.

    (Not to belittle algorithms. Much of my technical career was built around developing new ones, or recognizing where an algorithm from one field could be usefully applied in another.)

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  62. Michael Cain says:

    As a rule of thumb for determining if it’s a good Masters program, I usually ask, “Is the final thesis training for preparing a dissertation?”

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  63. grumpy realist says:

    (Geez Louise, I don’t think the cost of my innumerable higher degrees, added together, passed $110K. And that includes the law school.)

    If you really want to get a Master’s on the cheap (and probably of a much better quality), head off to Europe. Even at the prices they charge non-EU students, it’s a bargain. Your major problem will be after you return to the US and then have to argue with law school admission boards about the “qualifications” you have. (Which is silly, because as long as you have a Bachelor’s, you’re qualified to apply to an ABA approved program. So why are they wrangling with you about this perfectly superfluous Master’s?)

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  64. flat earth luddite says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    When everyone has a Master’s degree, who will sweep the floor?

    Late to the game tonight, gang, but I remember that my (mercifully brief) job at NOAA with my first AA was, in the words of my boss, “Keeping the idiots with Ph.D.’s from killing themselves or anyone else on the boat.” (In the interest of full disclosure, it was a ship not a boat, and he vastly underestimated the difficulties in keeping them alive. North Pacific/Gulf of Alaska/Straights of Juan de Fuca in mid-winter do not suffer fools gladly.)

    Sometimes I think about going back and completing the uncompleted degree. But all in all, as far as I can tell, I’m a lot happier than the baby lawyers I’m doing contract work for at $50/hr, who are paying off $300k student loans on a 10-year note. To say nothing of the 4 folks at my StuporStore who have MA/MS and are working for a skosh over minimum wage.

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  65. Ken_L says:

    My university’s School of Education has a lucrative online master’s program. I got to teach a business unit that’s part of it. Some students were outraged at having to do such a unit at all, despite others explaining to them that schools in Australia, even the public ones, are increasingly run like individual medium-sized businesses. The complainers regarded the program as an exercise in getting their workplace learning about teaching credentialled, and resented very loudly demands that they actually put in some time and effort learning in an unfamiliar discipline.

    IMHO an undergraduate honors year in which students learn research methods and undertake a substantial research project results in infinitely more valuable learning than another year of “masters” coursework, which in truth is little different to undergraduate coursework. But there’s no money in honors programs, so they are being killed by neglect.

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  66. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Ken_L: I can count on one hand (with fingers, plural, left over) the total number of graduate school classes that I took that weren’t double listed as 400-level courses also. The fact that those 2 or 3 classes were the only ones that I deliberately took–as opposed to having taken classes to fill the credit count–is strictly a coincidence. Honest! I promise!

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  67. wr says:

    @grumpy realist: “If you really want to get a Master’s on the cheap (and probably of a much better quality), head off to Europe.”

    I also teach a Master Class in TV writing for a Swedish film school. It’s a brilliant program, students enroll from all over the world, many of the grads are thriving… and the tuition is $500 per semester.

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  68. George says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Courses are usually seen as irrelevant for a masters (and in fact many universities only require a couple (and none for a phd), and supervisor’s regularly suggest taking seminar courses (in which you can present your research work) rather than a standard course. Graduate work is about the research and thesis. In fact its becoming common for a thesis just to be an introduction, short theory, then two or three published papers stapled together before a quick conclusion.

    My supervisors (and committee) told me not to waste much time on the courses, get a decent mark so as to keep the scholarship but concentrate on getting into research as quickly as possible.

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  69. DA says:

    At the university I work for, a few years ago the administration was asking for input from faculty about using one of these OPM companies, slapping the university’s label on some prepackaged online courses. The faculty didn’t go for it; we said that if it’s a course from our university it had to be taught by our university’s faculty. Having been a faculty member for about 20 years now, it’s one of the only examples I can cite of the administration listening to the faculty.

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  70. Hal_10000 says:

    It’s bizarre for me to read stories like this. We pay our graduate students’ tuitions plus a stipend. All the sciences do. And if you can’t get a job in academia with a science degrees, all that means is that your income just went *up*. But for much of the humanities, these degrees are only useful inside higher ed. And they are giving out several times as many degrees as there are jobs.

    If Bank of America were running an “internship” program where you paid them tens of thousands of dollars, got a certificate only useful for bank jobs, underwrote it with loans that couldn’t be discharged in bankruptcy and more often than not, ended up in a teller job in Iowa, the Democrats would be screaming blue murder.

    Cutting off student loans for most graduate school — apart from maybe law and medicine — seems like a place to start the discussion.

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  71. DrDaveT says:

    @CSK:

    I have yet to find a use in my day-to-day life for quadratic equations.

    I was totally stoked the two times I actually got to use the quadratic formula in my day job. It felt so validating.

    That said, the minor in Philosophy has been more useful overall than the PhD in Operations Research — and that PhD has been very useful.

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  72. DrDaveT says:

    @Teve:

    Do think there’s too much emphasis on advanced algebra in high school, i’d replace a lot of it with an emphasis on probability and statistics

    You might want to check out Art Benjamin’s TED talks on this subject.

    (Full disclosure: I shared an office with Art for one summer, and was impressed by both his intellect and his personability.)

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  73. DrDaveT says:

    @CSK:

    Try reading books by some of the authors who are routinely Number One on the NYTime bestseller list. “Abysmal” doesn’t begin to describe this stuff. Yet it gets gobbled up by readers.

    You’re talking about Dan Brown, and I Claim My Five Pounds.

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  74. DrDaveT says:

    @wr:

    And of course you’re right there’s a lot of junk out there — that’s true in books and movies and music and food and everything else.

    Sturgeon’s Law still applies. 90% of everything is crud.

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