Sep 28, 2017

Thoughts on Higher Education

For some time I've been preparing for this post, but many things came my way that required my attention (life happens as you know), but also, as I was pondering about the topic my ideas about it changed and morphed, and then... I decided I needed more.

The Process

Property of Stormberry
The idea to write about higher education came after I read an article in The Washington Post, titled "Equifax's security chief had some big problems. Being a music major wasn't one of them". For those of you who don't know the case, Equifax is one of the Credit Bureaus of the United States, which prepare the credit reports and credit scores of millions of Americans. These reports and scores are consulted by financial entities when people ask for loans, but also when these entities want to pick people to whom they want to sell different products, like credit cards, loans and so on. Anyway, this company got hacked this year, and the credit and personal data of 143 million Americans got loose. It happens that the Chief Security Officer, who is the top security person in the company, has no formal education in technology, cybersecurity, programming, computer engineering or any such formation. The lady has a music major.

My first reaction was - obviously - WHAT THE FUCKING HELL?  and I knew I wanted to write about that, and how I consider that this sort of thing entails something wrong in the current labour market. But then I've got thinking and other elements came to my mind and I decided to take this one step further and analyse some other elements of this question.

The Situation

After thinking some on the article, I decided to go to some statistic databases to check on what the situation is. For this I checked basically the OECD's database, and the World Bank's database. The data I use have several issues, among which I consider most important the following:

1. Many of the variables considered belong to different years (2013, 2015 and 2016).
2. We can't be sure they were collected usuing similar methodology.

These take from the comparability of the data, BUT it can still allow us to get an idea of the situation.

Source: OECD database
From what I've found, that the proportion of people with higher education is not so big. The countries with percentages include Korea (69%), Japan (59,6%) and Lithuania (54,8%). In average, for all the countries for which information was available, the 39,9% of the population has higher education. The United States is in 8th position with 46,5%.

When it comes to how much a student pays in average for higher education, the US is in first place with $27 578,29 in average, according to data from 2013 collected by the OECD. In Korea, where we have the highest rate of population with higher education, students in average pay $9 378,60, which is roughly a third of what American students pay for their education at home.

Finally, why is people supposed to pursue higher education? To get a higher chance at getting a job. In this sense, for the countries for which data was available, with the exception of Mexico, people with higher education reported a lower unemployment rate than the national average.

Source: Total unemployment by World Bank, Unemployment among population with HE by OECD
In some cases, such as Lithuania, Hungary and Latvia, the advantage of having a college degree is rather clear.

So What's My Point

In the case of the Chief Security Officer of Equifax, at one point several top officers started making noise about "not being qualified to work in Tech jobs". Twitter had some trends going on with the hashtag #unqualifiedfortech, where several of these people noted how they work in high tech positions while having degrees en entirely different areas. And this is where my issues start.

In several parts of the world getting a university degree means getting a higher chance not only to be employed, but also to have a better income. This would normally be so because when you get a Higher Education Degree you are supposed to have a Higher Education. In other words, you've acquire much more knowledge about a certain area, which qualifies you to work in it. For instance, someone who studied Medicine, is qualified to be a physician and heal people. Someone who studied Law is qualified to work as a lawyer or an attorney. To make this clear: you go to the university, and from all the options you've get, you enroll to study something that will qualify you to work in that area.

Accesing this higher education isn't either something easy of cheap in many places. Aside from the university fees, the cost of the courses, the cost of the textbooks, supplies, housing, transport and so on, often many careers make it particularly difficult for students to work next to their studies, not to mention that also often times, available jobs make it difficult not only to study next to them, but the wages they pay are hardly enough to pay for all the cost associated with education. And higher education often times implies years of living in these conditions. People with family, particularly single parents, find it very difficult to get a degree. In some countries and for some educational options, people get financial options. In some countries higher education has a subsidy, that make it much easier to pay.

In Costa Rica, for instance, at the UCR (Universidad de Costa Rica), which is a public university and the one with the highest reputation of all the higher education system, the maximum a student would pay per semester (for enrolled classes) is $287,67. Today. In most public universities here, courses are measured in "credits", which is a measure of the effort you must put in it, and also usually translate to the number of weekly hours of class you'll get. You can enroll as many courses as you want, but our government puts a cap to the number of credits you'll pay, and that maximum is 12 credits. That normally represents a full block of courses for a semester, but of you want to take on more classes to advance, you can do so for free, basically.

In for private universities here, such system does not exist, and you pay for your courses without cap. For these, as well as it happens in other countries, students can opt for education loans, which normally get to be paid after the career was concluded, or if it was abandoned by the student.

So, getting a higher education degree costs. Costs in money, costs in time, costs in effort because you actually have to study, costs in other job opportunities... So, what would be the point then, in studying, making all this effort, if - as so many opposers of #unqualifiedfortech seem to point it out - you don't seem to actually need a degree in tech to work in tech and score the highest incomes in the market within the tech industry? Because you don't need a music major or a literature major to "think outside the box" and find different ways to solve problems, which people who studied the given area aparently are not capable to do. So, how does that work exactly?

I am yet to see a job ad for filling a CEO position in a prestigious company in which "whatever college degree is accepted".

And besides, how do this people get to this positions? How do you end up in charge of the cybersecurity of a company with a degree in... philosophy? How did you qualified for that position?

Certainly, many people study something and then life force them to start working in something else. Yes, that happens and happens more often than not. I would love to see statistics about the amount of people with higher education degrees who are working in fields different than their studies. I can also agree - in the light of the previous cost and effort data and assumptions - that getting a degree for your new area might not be so easily accesible, BUT having a dab of integrity should really not cost you so much. If you know that you are going to spend the rest of your worklife in Human Resources instead of Maths as you have originally studied, the decent thing would be then to talk to your bosses, so that you can get the proper degree for it. After all, there are college choices for people who are also working, and since you are already working in the area, studies should prove to be easier.

That still don't fix the thing that still, there are people with a higher education degree unemployed, and there are jobs that should require a higher education degree filled by people who don't have it.

In my area (economics) I have met more than once people from different backgrounds trying to do my job, or even having the nerve of trying to lecture me and my colleagues about it. From their work, often times many mistakes are observed, many of which often are simple mathematical errors (a lot of people don't know how fractions work), and conceptual mistakes that could easily break the company.

Let me just put this whole diatribe in a very, very few points here, so that my message goes a bit clearer through. 

From the side of the people with higher education: getting into Higher Education demands a lot from people, not everybody gets accepted. Those who do, still have to go through it and survive and graduate. Many of these come out of the process with a debts - some more crushing than others.

From the corporative side: people without higher education degrees in the given area of the job are not only more prone to mistakes due to lack of proper knowledge, but are also more prone to let fraud pass by. Not being educated in protocols, they might allow due to lack of knowledge, a series of abuses and breaches of security that might imperil the company, the clients, the public and even larger groups and populations. People without the proper education can also be paid less, can also be convinced to take responsability over shady things made by others to profit. They can become escapegoats without even knowing so.

From the side of higher education institutions and financial entities: getting people into higher education is their business. Aparently getting them to work is not so much.

The point is that, for certain jobs background education IS needed, and there is people who have that knowledge, that studied for it. It's stupid to think that some years of experience, earned from scratch can match with all the knowledge that people can attain through education. Education is based on professors that have YEARS of knowledge, and loads of bibliography, which again comprise more years of knowledge. Theories proven and tested, experiences from all over the world... can all that be replaced with a couple of years going from messenger-to-CEO?

Now, am I here the only one to see how wrong this is?

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