On the Purported Essentiality of Higher Education for the Adult Learner

Written on January 29, 2017 for an assignment in my Spring 2017 course, IDS 6504: Adult Learning, at University of Central Florida.

1. StatementQuote: The transformation of the world economy over the past several decades has put a premium on an educated workforce. A more fluid and volatile global economy is characterized by more frequent job and career change, which is an important factor in the growing demand for continual learning and skill enhancement. Because of these changes, it is clear that current and future generations of adult workers seeking employment and better quality of life will require more education credentials. Thus 2- and 4-year degrees, certificate programs, and workforce educational and training opportunities are becoming increasingly essential for all workers. (Hansman & Mott, 2010, pp. 19–20)

2. Explanation – There is a lot to unpack in this statement. First, we have to take Hansman and Mott’s arguments with a grain of salt—they are university professors and administrators, who are obviously not a neutral source to ask about the necessity of their practice. It is difficult to imagine them saying that higher education is becoming increasing irrelevant, even if it were true.

Next, we can contrast this 2010 book chapter, having been published after the 2008 financial crisis, with the Reach Higher, America report (National Commission on Adult Literacy, 2008), which was published just three months before the worst part of the financial crisis. The Reach Higher report complains that American adults are less educated than the generation before, unlike every other OECD free-market country. While it is unfair and inaccurate to blame the financial crisis primarily on Americans’ lack of education, in a time of economic recession, high-value skills are essential to obtaining a living wage. I would contend that Hansman and Mott (2010) would not have worded their arguments as strongly had they been writing a few years earlier, when times were good.

However, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (2009), in 2009, of adults aged 25 and older, 85% reported having a high school diploma or equivalent and 28% reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher. These statistics are higher than ever before. To say that Americans are less educated is a misnomer, at least with respect to formal attainment. Nonetheless, it is possible they are completing secondary and post-secondary education yet coming away poorly educated or educated in subjects that do not provide value to employers. If so, educators, administrators, and policymakers share much of the blame.

Economically, globalization is characterized as a foregone conclusion, except perhaps by nationalists like President Trump. However, in lieu of protectionist policies, it becomes necessary for adult learners to develop increasingly specialized and high-value skills to merit a living wage in the open market. Under globalization-friendly policies, coupled with mechanical and technological advancements, jobs can be outsourced to foreigners at a small fraction of the cost of an American worker. First, this applied to durable goods, and now, in the Internet age, it applies even to U.S.-based technical positions, and certainly any jobs that can be performed remotely (e.g., customer service). For example, Americans working in information technology (I.T.) frequently complain about reduced wages or unemployment due to skilled foreigners with H-1B visas flooding the American workforce. These foreign workers are willing to work for far lower wages than Americans were previously accustomed to.

Fundamentally, however, a significant component of the “growing demand for continual learning” (Hansman & Mott, 2010, p. 19) is induced demand. If not for Pell grants, student loans, tax money, and government guarantees, it is unlikely that many of the faculty and staff—even those employed at University of Central Florida (UCF)—would be able to sustain their tenure, salaries, or quality of life. Moreover, the federal government offers student loans at unnaturally low interest rates even to non-creditworthy borrowers pursuing unsalable degrees, further incentivizing perverse educational choices among Americans. Ironically, this may be even more destructive with respect to private institutions. For example, private universities like Keiser University and University of Phoenix are over-priced and fairly pointless compared to public institutions like UCF, and yet ill-advised Americans can be suckered into ridiculous and unnecessary debt burdens due to the illogical availability of student loans for private institutions with low return-on-investment (ROI).

The burgeoning sector of the American economy that operates with relative independence from market forces—government and government-sponsored or government-like enterprises (healthcare, education, large corporations, etc.)—is now the ticket to the American dream. Yes, advanced degrees are usually required. However, I contend that in many cases, the day-to-day duties in a surprising proportion of these positions could be performed by high-functioning high school dropouts with a few months of well-executed training.


3. Statement – “Nearly half of new job growth in the first decade of the 21st century required college or other postsecondary education” (Hansman & Mott, 2010, p. 19).

4. Explanation – Once again, the temptation to conflate formal education with real education is strong. What may really be happening here is that employers are requiring a 4-year degree as a weed-out. My Psychology B.S. does not make me any better an office worker, but in an employer’s market, employers are flooded with desperate applicants. Thus, they use shortcuts to thin the herd. This may be one of the antecedents of the bizarre credential-inflation phenomenon we have seen over the past 50 years. Even quite recently, new advanced degrees like the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) have emerged, arguably to pander to this phenomenon. The cost to the adult learner is staggering. If a job that required 12 years education (Grades 1–12) in my grandfather’s time now requires 17 (Grades K–12 + Bachelor’s), the costs are huge, even to young adults who push straight through. (In truth, completing a 4-year degree in 4 years or less has actually become somewhat unusual.) Entering the workforce at Age 22 with $50,000 in debt versus Age 18 with no debt is a massive handicap, and this is a fairly conservative debt estimate. The 18-year-old can invest in retirement funds and brokerage accounts perhaps 10 years ahead of his/her college-educated counterpart, which can consistently produce a 7% inflation-adjusted annual return. Obviously, a 10-year head start yields an increase of 1.07^10 = 1.97× in retirement, which is almost double.

Consequently, the full-time adult learner pursues education at a massive opportunity cost. It is important for learners and educators to internalize this knowledge and act accordingly. If Americans desire the overwhelming, comprehensive advantages that high socioeconomic status (SES) delivers for themselves and their progeny, then as adult learners, it may be necessary to curate their programs of study with actuarial ruthlessness.


References (Note: Certain references are only included in the narrative as hyperlinks)

United States Census Bureau (2009). Educational attainment in the United States: 2009. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/p20-566.pdf

Hansman, C. A., & Mott, V. W. (2010). Adult learners. In C. E. Kasworm, A. D. Rose, & J. M. Ross-Gordon (Eds.), Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education (2010 ed.; pp. 13–23). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. Retrieved from http://www.sagepub.com/sites/default/files/upm-binaries/34503_Chapter1.pdf

National Commission on Adult Literacy. (2008, June). Reach higher, America: Overcoming crisis in the U.S. workforce. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED506605.pdf

Personal Limitations and Limiting Beliefs in Adult Learners

On January 29, 2017, added my replies to others to this blog post.

A brief exploration of my emergent beliefs about adult learning, written on January 22, 2017 for an assignment in my Spring 2017 course, IDS 6504: Adult Learning, at University of Central Florida. Many terms I have included, coined, or adapted are not operationally defined.

1. BeliefDisciplined and self-aware adult learners recognize their time, energy, and willpower is highly limited; consequently, under ideal psychological and physiological conditions they concentrate their efforts on what is highly interesting or useful.

2. Explanation – The feeling of infinite time and potentialities experienced by teenagers and twenty-somethings gradually evaporates, giving way through self-agency and external influences to realistic pragmatism, unhappy disillusionment, or something in-between. Those who recognize their personal limitations can focus pragmatically on what brings them the most happiness or benefit, particularly when they feel secure, well-rested, and are in a conducive learning environment. Sometimes, this may even involve strengthening areas where they already excel, rather than shoring up areas that require overwhelming efforts to yield minimal gains. However, the disciplined and self-aware adult learner is also able to direct their focus as appropriate to the goal at hand. For example, such an individual may focus on what s/he finds very interesting when learning in his/her spare time, but when it comes to formal or professional education, s/he recognizes the importance of pandering to syllabi, rubrics, requirements of courses or programs of study, and expectations of instructors or supervisors, which may involve learning or expressing interest in certain materials or tasks that are not of intrinsic interest, even though the overall course or program is of intrinsic interest. Finally, either consciously (ideal) or subconsciously (more common), such learners recognize the opportunity cost of learning, the value of creative and divergent thinking, the imperative to seek help and feedback early and repeatedly, and the value of strategic procrastination.


3. BeliefAdult learners are more susceptible than child learners to entrenched limiting beliefs operating globally and/or with respect to specific tasks or domains, including inferiority complexes, fixed mindset (entity theory of intelligence), performance-avoidance and mastery-avoidance goal orientations, social identity threat, and stereotype threat.

4. Explanation – While child learners may face limiting beliefs such as stereotype threat for mathematics among girls (often due to not fault of their own), adult learners may carry limiting beliefs from childhood or early adulthood with them as entrenched parts of their identities. For instance, many adults have a fixed mindset for their mathematical abilities, which can circumvent efforts to develop these skills. Such limiting beliefs are often based on a modicum of truth—for instance, it certainly is easier to learn a second language as a child than adult. However, the limiting belief often serves to prevent all progress, even when a great deal of progress was possible. The velocity at which the adult learner reaches the inflection point where a limiting belief is overturned is crucial to maximizing the degrees of freedom in his/her learning horizon. For example, it is not very useful if an adult at Age 70 finally overturns the limiting belief that she is not “college material.” However, if this limiting belief can be overturned at Age 35, the remaining potentialities (degrees of freedom) are far greater. On the other hand, past beliefs and knowledge can function as heuristics that allow the learner to quickly absorb instructional materials with an adequate level of fidelity. For example, the experienced academic may be able to quickly synthesize a journal article with a surprising degree of accuracy, just by reading the abstract and skimming key sections, tables, and figures. The adult learner’s experience is a double-edged sword, inflicting self-mutilation only to the extent that experienced-derived beliefs are inconsistent with reality. The disciplined and self-aware adult learner recognizes the search for truth as ongoing, iterative, and asymptotic. Moreover, s/he recognizes and rejects fallacies of logic and reasoning such as the all-or-nothing fallacy.


Replies to discussion posts by others, written by me on January 28, 2017.

Belief to which I am responding: “Whenever a person cares about the topic they are learning about, they do a better job of learning about it.”

My response:

Sometimes, we don’t know what we find interesting. We may think we find a particular topic interesting, and yet be bored and unmotivated in a formal course on the topic. This can be related to how the topic is framed and presented in the curriculum and by the instructor, a mismatch between our perceived and actual interests, or a combination of the two. Further, I have often found myself highly interested in a topic that is of no practical relevance to my life or real-world plans. One only has to look at the hordes of people interested in fictional worlds like World of Warcraft or A Song of Ice and Fire to see that humans are not necessarily most interested in what is most relevant to their professional or financial success, even as adults.

Regarding high-level maths, it has always amused me that one of the main uses for learning these is becoming a math teacher. Now, even engineers and statisticians rely on computer programs to perform many of their calculations. Of course, people must know how to design, develop, improve, and trouble-shoot these programs, but just as farming has become concentrated in the hands of a few experts who perform it at massive scale, so might knowledge of higher maths become unnecessary for many. In fact, this simplification is ongoing in multiple domains—for example, we have a whole new generation of web entrepreneurs who don’t even know how to write JavaScript, PHP or ASP.NET, SQL, or advanced HTML and CSS thanks to software suites (e.g., WordPress, Joomla) that do much of the difficult work for you.


Belief to which I am responding: “Adult learners have a better grasp on what their learning style is, and can then tailor their education in a way that best suits them.”

My response:

Learning styles have been thoroughly debunked, but what you are describing here sounds more like learning preferences (and in fact you even used the word “preference” in your explanation), which have validity. The learning styles myth is typically summed up in the belief that some learners are better served by visual content, while others might learn better in auditory, linguistic, or kinesthetic modalities. In fact, a more accurate characterization is that particular content is best learned in particular modalities—if making a balloon animal is best learned visually, then it is best learned that way for all (or most) learners, even if a learner claims to have a linguistic learning style.

Using “learning styles” in the way you have is not incorrect, but the term just has too much baggage and must be abandoned, particularly if you attend conferences like the American Educational Research Association (AERA), lest you be lampooned by hordes of educational eggheads dying to pounce on usage of an educational proposition that has (a) been thoroughly and reliably discredited and (b) remains wildly popular and influential.

As for online versus face-to-face courses, I agree 100% that online courses work much better for those with busy schedules. Some people may ask, why even bother? If you are going to learn online, why not just use Coursera, Udemy, Wikipedia, et cetera? Well, there are plenty of reasons! Particularly as an educator, academic credentials are very important and cannot be earned via Wikipedia. You can’t go in for an interview to be a teacher, instructor, or professor without the requisite academic degrees. Being enrolled at a university provides access to journal articles that you actually have to pay for otherwise. UCF alone pays $1.3 million for its subscription to Web of Science, and many millions more to provide you with access to academic journals and resources. Try writing a literature review as an Independent Scholar, and you’ll quickly find it is no easy task. Plus, even online courses have a way of lighting a fire under your butt that a massively open online course (MOOC) simply cannot do. For example, in your M.A., Ed.D., or Ph.D. at UCF, fail more than two courses and you’ll be ejected from the program. If you stop working on your MOOC, no one cares.

My Professional Development in Fall 2016

Today, January 17, 2017, I revised and expanded the paragraph from my teaching biography on my professional development in Fall 2016, which was my first semester in the Education Ph.D. program, Instructional Technology track, at University of Central Florida:

After concluding my first semester as a Ph.D. student, I am a co-PI (principal investigator) on a microbiology attitudes validation study (Modification and Validation of a Biology Student Attitude Survey for Use with Microbiology Students) and a co-presenter on a social studies conference proposal (Correlating Subsidized Lunch Prevalence with Seventh-Grade Civics End-of-Course Exam Proficiency in Florida Schools). In August 2016, I presented The Implications of Mindsets for Learning and Instruction (poster) at the Association of Teacher Educators’ summer conference in Louisville, Kentucky. In Fall 2016, I worked extensively on a National Parks Service project in EME 6613: Instructional Systems Design (no publications or conference presentations forthcoming). As part of my summer volunteering and fall GTA work, I contributed to STEM Education grant proposals that my advisor and colleagues were working on (presentations and publications may be forthcoming in future semesters, pending grant approval).

My Teaching Biography

Here is a personal biography I wrote on January 14, 2017 to introduce myself to other students in the EME 7634: Advanced Instructional Design course at University of Central Florida. Here, I have detailed my teaching background, personal goals, and personal expectations, as I enter the second semester of the Education Ph.D. program in the Instructional Technology track.

(a) current work position and job title

My name is Richard Thripp (I go by “Richard”) and I am a first-year Education Ph.D. student in the Instructional Technology track at University of Central Florida, a Dean’s Fellow, and a Graduate Teaching Assistant to Dr. Richard Hartshorne. I earned my M.A. in Applied Learning and Instruction at UCF in 2016, my B.S. in Psychology at UCF in 2014, and an A.A. at Daytona State College in 2011. I am 25 and a lifelong resident of Ormond Beach, FL.

(b) your teaching/training experience

My teaching experience dates back as far as 2006, when I was a student worker in the Volusia County Library System and gave a series of three two-hour classes to senior citizens on how to use a PC, keyboard, and mouse, Windows 2000, Internet Explorer, and web email.

In Fall 2008, I took PHY2048: University Physics at Daytona State College and prepared several practice exams and solution sets for other students, which other students were very grateful for. This work helped me go from failing to passing in my grades on exams in the course.

In Fall 2009, I was the Supplemental Instruction Leader for BSC 1005: Survey of Biology for Non-Science Majors at Daytona State College, for which I led 33 one-hour review sessions with an average attendance of five students each, created a website with numerous supplemental and review materials including 146 pages of my scanned, handwritten lecture notes and six chapter review quizzes with answers, and distributed printed copies of the website’s URL to over 150 students in three sections of the course.

In Spring 2011, I was a Peer Tutor at the Daytona State College Academic Support Center (ASC), qualified to tutor remedial math, College Algebra, Precalculus Algebra, Trigonometry, and Survey of Biology, though I primarily helped remedial math students who were compelled by departmental policy to complete their e-homework at the ASC. (“Qualified” meant having received an A grade in the course, by the ASC’s criteria.)

Over the next few years, I tutored math, GRE preparation, and piano privately, while taking a year off and then working on my B.S. in Psychology at UCF. (I was tired of higher math and “hard” sciences at this time.)

In Spring 2016, I put together a sprawling online financial literacy course for my M.A. Capstone projects, completing over 25 modules with research-supported activities and pedagogical approaches, including over two hours of narrated video. To date, I find writing about personal finance more personally interesting and motivating than many other educational topics.

In Fall 2016, with three colleagues in EME 6613: Instructional Systems Design, I developed guidelines and rudimentary materials for the National Park Service to train facility management specialists and tradespeople to assess the conditions of historic structures within the park system, based in part on the ARCS model of instructional design (Keller, 1987) and the Learning-by-Doing model (Schank, Berman, Macpherson, 1999).

Also in Fall 2016, with training from Dr. Hartshorne, I graded and provided substantiative feedback on the following assignments produced by undergraduates in two sections of EME 2040: Introduction to Technology for Educators: 20 group-based classroom wikis, 55 one- to two-minute individual educational videos, 58 individual lesson plans, and 56 individual PowerPoint-based interactive quizzes. I quickly learned how time-consuming it is to grade and give quality feedback to large numbers of students.

(c) assessment of how this course relates to what you already know about training and instruction

I still have to look up the definition of ontology / ontological when I see it (cannot remember it), and until a year ago, I could not remember the definition of pedagogy or epistemology. (Now, I remember them as “relating to teaching practice” and “beliefs about knowledge.”) Where I generally am an excellent writer and can produce impressive prose despite having deficits in my retention of educational theories, this course will (a) help further fill in the gaps for me and (b) sharpen my specialization in instructional design. Many ideas in the prior course (EME 6613), such as the differences between systematic design and subject-matter expert (SME) -based design, were ideas I had intuited in past years but never came across a vocabulary for. Consequently, with respect to what I already know about training and instruction, EME 7634 will correct, extend, and make the implicit explicit.

(d) expectations and desired learning outcomes relative to this course

After concluding my first semester as a Ph.D. student, I am a co-PI (principal investigator) on a microbiology attitudes validation study (Modification and Validation of a Biology Student Attitude Survey for Use with Microbiology Students) and a co-presenter on a social studies conference proposal (Correlating Subsidized Lunch Prevalence with Seventh-Grade Civics End-of-Course Exam Proficiency in Florida Schools). I presented The Implications of Mindsets for Learning and Instruction at the Association of Teacher Educators’ summer conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I worked extensively on a National Parks Service project and on STEM Education grant proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF) as part of my summer volunteering and GTA work.

While these accomplishments all provided useful experience and were interesting in their own ways, the only one I consciously chose was mindsets, which my interest in has now waned. My desired outcome for this course and the Spring 2017 semester is that I focus heavily on topics that are immensely interesting and motivating to me. While I do want to shore up some of my weaknesses, I want to focus more on strengthening my strengths, even if it doesn’t make everyone happy. This means when given the choice of topic, I would probably pick topics that are STEM- or finance-related. As for the analysis techniques I choose to study in this course, I have not read enough to know which ones I like yet.

My expectations are that Dr. Atsusi Hirumi will be as helpful, entertaining, and rigorous as last semester.

(e) one interesting aspect about your life (hobbies, personal interests, unusual skill or trait)

One ironic aspect of my life is that I skipped two-thirds of 1st grade, was home-schooled by my father for Grades 2–12 (through a private school), combined Grades 2–3 in one year, and graduated high school at Age 15. Then, I took four years to earn a two-year degree (I managed to drop out twice during this time) and took a year off. I am a prospective educator whose only experience in K–12 is attending kindergarten, three months of 1st grade, and sitting in on 15 hours of a 5th grade class in 2011. However, I am more interested in being a postsecondary educator (viz., a professor) than a K–12 educator.

My academic and personal writings and presentations on a wide variety of topics are presented unseparated on my website, http://Thripp.com.

References

Keller, J. M. (1987). Development and use of the ARCS model of instructional design. Journal of Instructional Development, 10(3), 2–10.

Schank, R. C., Berman, T. R., & Macpherson, K. A. (1999). Learning by doing. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Vol. II (pp. 161–181). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

No Magic in the Power of Compound Interest for Personal Finance, etc.

The U.S. stock market produces about a 7% inflation-adjusted annual return, on average. Consequently, the return on an investment in the whole market (or even an index fund of just the S&P 500) over a number of years can be approximated by the equation FinalValue = Principal × 1.07^Years. This fact is frequently used to show the impressive growth in an investment over time. For example, if a 25-year-old invests $50,000 in Vanguard’s VTSAX index fund, s/he would have about $50,000 × 1.07^40 after 40 years (Age 65) = $50,000 × 14.97 = $748,723. The same amount invested at Age 18 would yield a higher multiplication factor of 1.07^47 = 24.05, leading to a balance of about $1,202,285 at Age 65. If, however, one invests the $50,000 at Age 35, well… 1.07^30 is a measly 7.61, which is only $380,613.

The stock market actually yields somewhere closer to 11.69% in nominal dollars on average, but the 7% figure is inflation-adjusted and somewhat conservative… Over 40 years, 7% returns yield 14.97× while 11.69% returns yield 83.29×. At first glance this might seem wrong, but only if you don’t notice the multiplicative element of 1.1169 × 1.1169 × 1.1169 × 1.1169 × 1.1169 … et cetera. Consequently, investing in the stock market at 7% annual average yield versus a CD at 1% annual yield is not just seven times better… It’s seven times better on average over a single year. Over multiple years, not only do the benefits of investing in stocks grow far faster than linear addition, but risk also declines. As a short-term investment, stocks are quite risky, but if you are investing for 40 years… there is much less risk. Our $50,000 invested at Age 25 at a 7% annual yield grows by 15-fold; at a 1% annual yield… well, 1.01^40 = 1.49-fold, which is a pathetic $74,443 versus a monstrous $748,723.

So, 7% versus 1% annual yield yields a 10-fold difference over 40 years… but that’s with the principal included. If we deduct the principal of $50,000, it’s $24,443 versus $698,723, which is actually 28.6× better. This is a legitimate mathematical maneuver, because obviously we don’t want the principal muddying the calculation… If it was one year, it would be $50,500 vs. $53,500 which is only a 1.06× difference with principal included, but a 7.00× difference if we just look at return on investment (ROI).

However, the power of compound interest too often becomes a demotivating counterfactual for people in middle age… or perhaps even people in their late twenties! The “magic” that happens here is not magical—it’s just exponential growth, or, literally multiplying the same number, the annual yield factor, over and over. That is to say, the compounding (exponential growth) curve remains the same regardless of entry point. At 7% annual yield, you could invest $50,000 at Age 25 and have $748,723 at Age 65… or, you could invest $53,500 at Age 26 and have the same result. If you enter the curve at Age 35, you would need to invest $50,000 × 1.07^10 = $98.357.57 to have the same result at Age 65 as investing $50,000 at Age 25. Of course, this oversimplifies risk, which is lower by investing in stocks for longer periods, but as long as you are over 15 years or so, it probably doesn’t make much difference… albeit, at Age 50 you would need $271.371.63 to get to $748,723 at Age 65… but that is still a tremendous return of 2.76× (or, 176%).

Because the exponential growth curve remains the same regardless of entry point, larger investments in middle age can make up for lack of investments in youth. As a corporate shill, one’s income tends to greatly increase in middle age, so it is not “too late” for you to achieve financial freedom in old age, provided you aren’t prevented from investing by the materialistic lifestyle that flushes every dollar you earn down the toilet. (Credit card interest compounds the same way, but against you, and often at 20% instead of 7%.)

Taxation aside, disconnecting exponential growth from your age is useful, because the two don’t actually have anything to do with each other, mathematically speaking. If Alfred Nobel puts $50,000 in a VTSAX trust fund, in 100 years the account would be at $50,000 × 1.07^100 = $50,000 × 867.72 = $43,385,816… and that’s an inflation-adjusted figure. But, recall that he could also put $748,723 in for 60 years and still wind up with $43,385,816. Not magic at all, but just a property of exponents.

Writing on education, finance, psychology, et cetera