CollegeQandA asks: Why is university so expensive?

Why is university so expensive?

There is a general concern that the cost of higher ed is too high.  The question is, why is university so expensive?  The answer is the cost to pay people is high, and the funding for paying people is mainly left to the individual.

American money fanned outPeople are expensive

The people in the “university so expensive” case are the faculty and staff.  For example, to maintain a low faculty-to-student ratio (let’s say 20:1 which might be considered high) you arguably have 20 students paying for one faculty.  Let’s further argue that with benefits and pay the 20 students need to cover around 200,000 dollars.  Already, each of you needs to pay around 10,000 just for that single faculty.

Other ratios might enlighten us all

That single faculty is now paid, but what about the staff and administration needed to run a large institution.  What is the staff to student ration or the administration to student ratio?  What about the coach to student ratio?  Each one of these people has both pay and benefits, and therefore, tuition dollars also need to be allocated to these resources.

Who pays for the heat and electricity?  Who pays for the IT staff and infrastructure?  Who pays for the gym, career center, and grounds up keep?  It’s all part of tuition.

Does public education mean anything

In theory, public schools are fully (ha!) or partially funded by public tax dollars.  The idea is that we as a collective help pay for a young persons education to allow for their career mobility.  The reality is that less and less public funds are going to public universities, and as this happens the public university needs to raise tuition (or in a way, privately tax the young).

This is a societal choice, but under current trends an undergraduate degree is expensive, and the majority of the cost is used to pay the people that teach, maintain, and run the institution.  That’s why university is so expensive.

Credits: photo titled: Money Hand Holding Bankroll Girls February 08, 20117; by Steven Depolo

CollegeQandA asks: What should I do to get into graduate school?

What should I do to get into graduate school?

For a four year undergraduate program, asking this question in the fourth year is almost too late.  Getting in to a good graduate program (if that is the path you want to take) takes some planning.  Here are some basic ideas on grades, early, research and recommendation letters that may differentiate you for  graduate school admission.

Desk with person and many papers

Where to go is first

The reality is you need your reasons to go to graduate school.  In engineering, the typical Ph.D. reason is “I want to be a professor”.  In other fields, there might be other reasons, but you are going to want to go to the best school possible since the trickle down of academic pedigree will likely impact your future career options.

Grades aren’t the whole game, but they matter

Now that you have picked a top school to attend, you need to get accepted there.  The base bar to being admitted to the school is your grades and how you perform on any admittance tests.  For most US universities this test is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).  You need to do well on the test and have a high GPA.  However, this is only the base bar that you must meet.   The reality is that students across the country and throughout the world are meeting this base requirement.  How are you going to separate yourself from this large group?

Undergraduate research helps

If you can get an academic paper, presentation experience, and research training in your undergraduate time, then you are in a better spot than most.  This is why the fourth year is not a great time to get into research since the time it takes to complete research and submit work is not a short period such as a semester.  It can take a year or more to complete a worthy research project or even participate in a large research team.  However, the experience of performing research will not only improve your chances, but will show you some idea of what graduate school might be like.

Letter of recommendations

Probably, the biggest step to get into certain programs is the relationships between your recommending professors and your target schools.  If one of your recommendation letters comes from a tight relationship with your target school and the professor writing the letter, then there is a significantly greater chance of you being put to the top of the pile.

The reason for this is that all professors write letters of recommendation for their students.  If I know the person who is writing the letter when looking through graduate applications, then I know I can trust their opinion, and a strongly recommended student carries more weight from someone I know than a letter from a random professor.

In this light, I highly recommend looking at where your professors came from (in their graduate and post-graduate work) as this may help guide you on where to apply for your graduate future.

Credits: photo titled: E.D Morel, ca. 1900-1915 (IMP-CSCNWW33-OS10-23); by Ashley Van Haeften

CollegeQandA asks: Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites, and what do they think about them?

Do professors know about Course Hero and similar sites?

There are many resources on the internet that will help you in your courses.  Some of these sites do have material that students upload from previous years that you can purchase or upload your work and sell it – such as Course Hero.  Do professors know about these sites?  I would say a good number do, but definitely, not all of them.

Course Hero Screenshot

The existence of test banks (groups keeping records of all the tests and in some cases answers), course notes from previous years, and the accumulation of information as related to a course is not new.  The internet and its all-to-all communication model has just made it a little easier for this information to be archived and searched, and the existence of these types of sites was inevitable.  In the future, there might be some legal battles fought out on who owns what in the case of a course, but until then here are some basic ideas.

What do professors think about these sites?

I can’t speak for all professors, but I’m certain that universities and their faculty have a mixed opinion of this type of information being available, and a bigger concern on how it could be used.  For example, most professors would agree that using this material in the form of copying would be considered a violation of academic integrity.  In other cases, however, this material could be useful for a student to model solutions, answers, or responses that is a goal for a student to achieve.   Using material in this way might be fine.  So there’s a mixed feeling on this information being available.

Note, there are some course syllabi that strictly state that material from the course is not to be shared.  In these instances, uploading that course material is a clear violation that might result in further academic and legal battles that I can’t guess how they might proceed.

The future is active and tailored learning

In my opinion, these types of sites will have less and less impact as we proceed into better higher education.  For those courses that are template based and use traditional information transfer that is assessed through basic tests, then these types of sites are a concern.  For most of my courses, which are active learning with some student proposed work, these sites offer little benefit when a student has to learn to perform.

In the big picture of a degree, information is always available and is ever more accessible.  Information is useless unless it can be used in our ever theme of “doing”.  You won’t get a good job or a great career or achieve anything meaningful unless you learn to do.  Learning to do is hard, and there is no easy path.  Sites like these promise the potential for an easy something, but my guess is they rarely lead to any great achievement – just a way of skipping the work.

CollegeQandA asks: What should I do the weekend before classes start?

What should I do the weekend before classes start?

Your family has dropped you off at college or you arrived at campus by yourself, and you have a few days before classes start – that first weekend.  Is there anything you should do before classes start to pave the way for a good semester?  At Miami the excitement of the new semester has started, and the streets are alive with youthful vigor.

Uhaul van moving in

Get the basics done

For those of you who are in your first-year or new arrivals to campus, your first weekend is about discovering where things are, how to do the most basic activities, and figuring out who might be your new friends and acquaintances.  In other words, expect to be disoriented for the next few days, but make sure you ask questions to everyone so that you do everything you should to just have the basics down.

Your priorities are:

  • If you don’t have your University ID card, then where and how do you get it.  This thing will do a lot around  campus for you.
  • You need to figure out where and when your classes are.  I would find the rooms ahead of time so you’re not late on class one.
  • How do you get your daily food and pay for it?
  • Where are the people who can help you if you need information or things?

All these basics are also needed for more senior students, but I would expect that those of you in that category almost know all of these.

Connecting with friends new and old

Take some time to socialize and meet old and new friends.  The reality is that this is probably the quietest time in the upcoming semester, so you should spend time with friends to reconnect.  However, don’t overdo the socializing with friends and party too much.  There’s no reason to start off the semester already tired and disorganized.  You can easily balance your reconnect to friends with solid preparation.

Get a jump on course organization

If your upcoming courses have an online accompaniment, then there is no reason you shouldn’t take a peak at what material is already posted (including the syllabus), needed books, and creating a semester calendar (I would suggest google calendars) with your actual next few months (you can tie this into your goals too).

Do you have your notebooks prepared for each of your courses?  If there are slides for the course, then do you have them printed?  What other materials will you need for these courses?

Most important – Set your semester goals

The big thing you need to do the last weekend before the semester is to nail down your goals for the semester (whatever they might be).  This doesn’t mean a general goal statement such as, “do well in my classes this semester”.  Instead, to achieve a goal you need to break it into smaller goals that will help you achieve your bigger picture.

You need to make specific goals both semester long and short term.  So, if I want to “get in shape this semester”, I need to include short term weekly/monthly goals that I can measure to get me to the big goal.  Smaller goals such as: “work out three times a week at the rec center” and “follow a progression workout for the next month” are steps to my bi goal, and if I truly want to achieve the bigger goal I can check in and see if I’m meeting my smaller steps.

Be prepared and have some fun to get you in the right mode for the fall semester.

Credits: Photo titled: Moving Truck; by CJ Sorg

CollegeQandA says: Gone Fishing

Gone Fishing for the Summer

Bird in water with fish in its mouthWell, as the school semester draws to an end, I’m taking a break from writing here until next semester.  I might do a little writing over the summer for this blog, but my focus will be on cleaning up the website and getting the book into final stages.  If you have any questions that you would like me to write about, then feel free to contact me.  Otherwise, best of luck in your summers, and keep on learning and doing.

Credits: photo titled: Watercolour Wildlife – June 2013 – Successful Grebe in the Early Evening Sunshine; by Gareth Williams

CollegeQandA book review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

Book Review: How Will You Measure Your Life?

How Will You Measure Your Life?
 

How Will You Measure Your Life? is written with us in mind, but presents ways to live with examples from how companies act and business theories apply.  The book reads well within the classic format of: story example(s) from business, business concept explained, and how concept can be applied to life theme.

The three major life themes are:

  • Finding your best fit career
  • Having good relationships
  • Staying out of jail

Each of these themes is covered well in the format described above, and overall, I enjoyed reading the book.  I plan on reading it again this summer if I have time.

Does this book relate to CollegeQandA?

This book is about ideas in your life.  If many of us had the wisdom that is described in this book, not only would life be better, but college life could be leveraged even more to get greater gains.  For example, chapter four (“Your Strategy is Not What You Say It Is”) discusses how many of our (companies and people) resources are allocated to things other than what are our real goals.  A good strategy means that we put our time and money towards the goals that matter, and if we allocate them differently then it might mean our stated goals are not our true goals.  Yes, we all want to do well in classes, but does our allocation of resources truly show that?

I would recommend this book to…

This book is an interesting cross-section between self-help and business advice.  The strength is how business concepts are applied to living a life worth living (this is of course your definition of worth living).  This book is recommended for all of us interested in taking a different look on why we behave the way we do and how we might make that better.

CollegeQandA asks: Why are projects so important in College?

Why are projects so important in College?Building Construction

Projects are some of the closest activities you’ll do in College that have some similarity to the working world (that I assume you are trying to join).  A project allows you to demonstrate that you can do something from early conception to close to completion.

There are very few jobs in – taking exams

It’s true.  There just aren’t many jobs out there in taking exams, regurgitating facts, showing the steps on how you solved something, and picking between letters in multiple choice or picking true/false.  The follow up question should be, “Why then do we take all these exams in school?”

Well there are a number of reasons to take exams, but start with this idea that exams are meant to assess how well you have learned a particular set of concepts and ideas.  How should a teacher determine if you understand these ideas and concepts and give you feedback on your learning?  Exams and tests are a way to do this assessment at a reasonable time cost.  For example, with a test that I can create in about 4 hours, have students do in 1 hour, and mark/grade in 8 hours it costs only 17 hours and maybe 52 person hours (for a class of 30 students).  If a machine can grade the test, that time goes down.  So in many cases examinations are the easiest and most efficient (time perspective) method for assessing student knowledge.

For that same class of 30 students, if I spent 20 minutes in an oral examination to evaluate their understanding, it would take 10 hours assuming that I know the right oral questions to ask and probe, there are no delays between students, the scheduling of these oral questions is magically administrated, everyone takes exactly 20 minutes, and so on.  That assessment is harder to implement for the teacher though and the time will always be much greater.

Projects to the rescue

A project in a class is an opportunity to create an activity that can be assessed in reasonable time, but the depth of student work (including creativity, problem solving, communication, doing, and critical thinking) goes far deeper than almost any exam can capture.  Plain and simple, the learners doing the project tend to learn far more since they have to do something and solve all the steps to get it done.

I also like open ended projects since students have the opportunity to create and do something they’re interested in.  For engineers, this might be one of the few opportunities in their lives to work on their creations as opposed to being told what they need to do.

Finally, projects with their depth and unknown challenges they provide mirror more of what people tend to do in the working world.

Is there anything projects can’t do?

The worst thing about class projects is they lack a completion and quality aspect.  For example, a student group starts to do their project, gets close to the end of the semester, and runs out of time.  What do they do?  Submit what they have done and probably get a lower grade for their work.  The same is not true in the real world.  A lower grade for not completing a project or delivering a weak project is getting fired.  So projects lack a more pure assessment in college.

Second, most projects are done in groups again to simulate the “real-world”.  Group work has all sorts of complexities that make it hard to achieve something.  It seems like someone always free loads.  People are hard to work and get along with.

Projects have many other limitations, and are just another activity/assessment that is part of your learning.

Projects are good

Still, each project you have is an opportunity to establish your portfolio.  Projects are the rare opportunities in school to allow you to take some autonomy (see the book Drive by Pinker).  Projects can be lots of fun.  And projects are about the closest to real you can get in college.

Credits: photo titled: Construction; by Stephen Rush

CollegeQandA asks: How important are my grades?

How important are my grades?

Package with eggsI’m from Canada and I like to say, “we grade eggs, but we assess people to give them feedback on their learning”.

I, personally, think public grades as a measurement device of people is a bad idea.  Of course, I’m one of those weird people that is focused on this idea of learning.  From my perfect world perspective, I think that grades can be a summative indicator of your performance on an assessment(s).  As a private feedback measurement a grade is useful in helping the learner have a summary indicator that shows their performance on learning.  The summary grade with detailed feedback on what other aspects of the task that need to be worked on is a useful way for the learner to try and move forward.

Forget your utopia, how important are grades

In a credentialist (not sure that’s a word) based society, grades are important.  The reality is that grades are used by institutions to quickly evaluate people.  For example, a company with an entry level position might receive 300 applications for this job.  One simple way to filter these 300 candidates is to make a grade point average (GPA) mark and cut everyone who hits below that line.  This is needed since it is difficult and time consuming to evaluate all 300 people for a single position efficiently.

In many ways, we use grades as a quick indicator of how a person is performing in topic areas.  From a student perspective, grades are important since they impact what possibilities are available once completing a degree in particular for that first job.

Still important?

The odd thing with your GPA is it becomes almost irrelevant once you get your first job.  This is because your next job or promotion will be based on what experience you have at getting things done.  Or as I like to say, “Can you do things?”

The grade is a very poor measurement of your doing stuff ability.  However, if your job is taking tests, then it is a great indicator.

Going forward

So, yes, grades are important, but learning and doing is much more important for the long game.  The grade is a single measurement signal of how you have performed.  Going forward though, the portfolio is becoming  a more appropriate signal of your ability (and not just for artists).  In college, every major project you do, create, and build is a better signal that demonstrates what you can do.  This includes your activities outside traditional class and you should be curating a web presence to host this portfolio.

If your GPA is not as good as you need it to be, then not all is lost.  If you have a portfolio of what you can do, you can work your way into entry jobs at smaller and lesser (in the eyes of the public) institutions.  People who can learn and do things are valuable.  So, it’s not all about grades, but good grades tend to correlate to people who learn, work hard, and do things.  And that’s the chicken back to the graded egg.

Credits: photo titled: Eggs; by bunnicula

CollegeQandA asks: What are office hours?

The most underutilized resource at universities

Person sleeping in their office

Some professors have busy office hours filled with students, but most of us schedule office hours and have little to no contact with students unless there is a major exam, assignment, or activity that has an upcoming due date.

But, what are office hours?  The office hour(s) is a scheduled time by the professor where they guarantee that they will be in their office to be available to students and their concerns.  The main purpose is so students can ask questions about things that they either don’t understand or want a deeper understanding as related to a course.  However, most professors are happy to discuss ideas beyond the course including advising, careers, new ideas, etc.

I want to go, how should I prepare?

This depends on the professor, but most professors have a basic expectation if you are coming to ask additional questions or get help for topics in a course.  Note, the title above implies that you prepare for the office hour, and it should not be considered a time to redo a lecture.  You should do some preparation before you walk in and ask questions.  For example, imagine I have given you an assignment on topic X.  You should first try to do work on topic X, you should search out resources (such as textbooks, internet, etc.) to help you on topic X, and then when you are having problems you can bring what you have done working with topic X, and we can look at what you are doing well and what is missing to allow you to make further progress.  Don’t come in and just say, “How do I do this assignment?” or “I don’t get this?” without trying to learn on your own.

The same is true if you are going in for curriculum advice.  You should have some idea what you courses you need to do in the future, and your meeting should be spent on questions that you are unsure of instead of simply saying, “What courses should I take?”

Preparing for a meeting is, likely, part of your future job, and it shows that you respect both the person you are meeting with as well as your own time.

What if I don’t have questions about …?

You should go to office hours even if you don’t have direct questions related to the course or advising.  However, you should still prepare what you want to discuss before hand that is of real interest to you and is, likely, an interest of your professor.  This might be tricky since you are learning an area where the professor is a more experienced person in the topic.  Try open ended questions (the ones that can’t be answered yes/no) related to the course topics or your professors research since they may lead to interesting discussions.

Note, I suggest that visiting your professor is a good thing, but don’t overdo it.  Just because a professor has scheduled time to meet with students, don’t spend all of that time.  If you don’t have course or advising related questions, then an interesting discussion with a professor once or twice a semester would be good and not considered overbearing.

Credits: photo titled: Office Intern, by: Richard Elzey

CollegeQandA asks: Should I go to graduate school?

Who goes to graduate school?

Should I go to graduate school? This is an important question to consider as you complete your undergraduate and try to plan out your career. We will take a few perspectives on the whys and why nots.

Clock with 3 replaced by word career

Rarely just because

Many people who I’ve talked to about going to graduate school include the answer, “just because”.  I, probably, should be included in this camp, but my other reason for going to graduate school was that a professor a respected and listened to told me to go to graduate school.  I, obviously, had a great plan for my future.  The trick here is graduate school can:

  • Cost significant amounts of money
  • Costs more money in terms of lost opportunity cost
  • Takes time
  • Is not a guarantee of being completed successfully
  • Might not impact your life goals

The first piece to choosing to go or not to, is to have some sort of plan on where and what you want to do.

Let’s start with the Master’s degree

In most cases, a masters degree is a financial end career total earnings the best degree to get.  Still, that does not mean you should just do the degree.  Also, this is general advice on the Master’s degree and there are a tonnes of factors to consider depending on your individual case including current debt, area of study, job market, location in the world, school to attend, etc.

The masters degree is an opportunity to spend one to three years delving deeper into academics via courses, projects, and in some cases, a thesis.  This additional depth means that you will improve your ability to think and do, and people who can think and do better tend to get paid more if there is demand.

One other thing I noticed when I did my Master’s was that I got to tackle problems that I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to work on until 2-5 years into an industrial career.

Finally, I know many people who say they plan on doing their Master’s later.  This is possible, but in most cases getting paid and the prospect of doing a Master’s and being paid significantly less (if anything) is very tricky to do.

For the Ph.D. degree

In almost all cases, I think the main reason to pursue a Ph.D. degree is if you want to become a professor (or really think you want to become a professor).   I, highly, recommend you read The Professor is In before starting that degree to understand the nature of the faculty job world.  If you start with the basic idea that a Professor self-replicates by advising and creating Ph.D students, then you quickly see how a market with exponential growth doesn’t have positions for everyone in it and is competitive – Amazon.

If you have another reason to do a Ph.D, then as long as you see it as a means to get what you want then it is fine.  That is unless the reason is you want to be called Doctor; not worth the toil for such a title.

Credits: photo titled: Clock-career; by Flazingo Photos