The Dilemma of Choice in Finding a College | Interview with Stuart Rojstaczer

The Dilemma of Choice in Finding a College | Interview with Stuart Rojstaczer

We met with Dr. Stuart Rojstaczer to discuss college choice, the consumer mindset in higher education, U.S. News & World Report rankings, and more. Enjoy!

Stuart Rojstaczer discusses the consumer mindset in higher education caused by the increasing price and enrollment in education. The individualist path professors and students are taking is also a result of the changing expectations of the job market. As a result, Dr. Rojstaczer has found that over the past 20 years, higher education is now seen as an investment to get ahead rather than an opportunity to expand one’s mind. Student Karina and Professor Rojstaczer discuss the value of increasing education in terms of preparation for the workforce. They talk about what makes an applicant qualified and the emerging potential for self-education using online resources.

Rojstaczer comments on the impeccable timing of U.S. News & World Report that offers some form of security for students and families in the college decision process. Students are met with the dilemma of choosing a college because of the sheer number of universities that are now accessible to students. This accessibility is a result of the increased cost of college and the mobility of individuals. Rojstaczer advises students to simply pick three schools near them and emphasizes that college is more about what a student makes out of it rather than the school they attend.

Karina’s Interview with Stuart Rojstaczer

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Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:15.6How did you come to write the book?

Karina: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko, from Academic Influence, and I’m here with Dr. Rojstaczer and he wrote a book that is particularly to higher education, and so we’re gonna talk about how you came to write that book and what it means for students specifically or people my age who are either about to go to college or already in college. So let’s start with how you came to write this book.

Stuart Rojstaczer: Okay, I think I wrote this book a long time ago before you were born, and probably the seed for it came about... In about 1995. I’d been teaching for about five, six years, at Duke university, and my career was going great. But I saw that what was happening at the university was that everyone was pursuing their own individual path, researchers... Professors were pursuing this research path to try to get accolades, not from within the university, but outside the university, their research colleagues at other universities around the world, administrators were trying to maintain the reputation of the university in a sort of public way to make it look as good as possible. So they were trying to balance the books and involved 100% in balancing the books and PR, and the actual quality of what was going on was not all that particularly important to them.

And students were pursuing, increasingly had switched from an idea where they were acolytes in search of knowledge, which was the traditional model with some false failures in that model, to one where they were consumers of a product that would get them ahead in life. That’s quite a transformation that took place from the 1920s, 1930s and continues to the present date. So everyone was pursuing their own separate path, and the community of higher education where people were trying to actually make their institution actually better was not being addressed. So that’s how I came to write that book.

0:02:39.7Consumers of higher education

Karina: Well, and what do you think kinda caused this switch into a consumer of higher education versus actually wanting to learn?

Stuart Rojstaczer: I think it was driven by... There are a number of reasons. There are probably so many that I’m not even aware of, but one reason was the cost of education had increased dramatically since the 1960s. What had happened from the 1940s until the present day, is that you had a dramatic increase in enrollment across the nation there, now I think I could be wrong slightly, and there’s been about about 20 million people pursuing higher education in the United States today in four-year colleges. The number was in the hundreds of thousands in the 30s. And I think it was about two million in the 1940s, so you had this tenfold to twenty fold to probably almost 50-fold increase. I don’t know if 50-fold is correct but dramatic 10, 20 fold increase in the number of people pursuing education. And historically, education had been heavily subsidized by the states, and with that dramatic increase in enrollment, they started to pull back their support, and universities had to raise tuition, public universities had to raise tuition accordingly. So public education, used to be something cheap, quite affordable. I’m gonna sound like an old man here, but I paid... What was it like? $300 a semester for my tuition at University of Wisconsin.

So $600 a year, I could afford to live, in Old dollars on $2000 a year, including tuition, room and board and books. Then you could be an acolyte in search of knowledge, but when you’re paying $30000 for... I don’t know what... $25000 probably in tuition in Wisconsin right now, plus the books, plus the enrollment board, then you’re gonna start thinking about it as a way to get ahead. So that’s a big change.

And secondly, the job market changed. So in the old days, and I sound again like an old man, what degree you had wasn’t important and it wasn’t that common to get a degree, so if you got a degree, you were part of a small select group of people and jobs were relatively plentiful. And as people started to increasingly go to college, the elite aspect of a college degree started to get diminished and the job market had changed dramatically where companies started to expect people to have certain skill sets that they never expected in my day. They didn’t care if you had an Economics degree. And you could still go work in Wall Street, you could be a history major. Now if you try to do that, they’re gonna look [0:05:46.9] ____. So the expectations from the job market changed and tuition changed dramatically, and those two factors produced this idea that college is about getting ahead, and was an investment, and was no longer something that you went to expand your mind for and to learn life-long learning skills. That’s a dramatic transformation. And it happened over...

Gradually over a period of about 20 years corresponding with changes in employer expectations and dramatic rises in tuition and expenses of colleges.

0:06:29.9Is there the same consumer mindset in graduate school?

Karina: Wow. Yeah. And I know that students my age are definitely starting to feel that consumer highly competitive market that higher education has really become. And what about past undergrad? As you go to grad school, like you said, as things become more competitive then people will seek higher education. So that means more schooling past just your college undergrad. And do you see that same consumer mindset, also in graduate school or it stays mostly in undergrad?

Stuart Rojstaczer: Well, in the professional programs, certainly. So what you’ve seen over the last 50 years is a dramatic increase in professional school enrollment at the graduate level. And what’s the reason to go to a professional school in engineering, in education, nursing, medical school, business, it’s to get a job. So you’ve had a dramatic expansion in job-related graduate programs. So there’s that one egg, which has gotten... That one basket of eggs has gotten a lot more eggs. And then there’s what your father’s is working in, which is in physics, and it’s pretty much the same, you’re out there to try to develop your research prowess and pursue ideas. And that has stayed about the same, but the professional aspect of graduate school has expanded dramatically. And I should say that even at an undergraduate level, the traditional majors in the humanities, have diminished dramatically, because students know if they have those degrees, they’re gonna have a harder time getting a job, or they perceive it, they’re gonna have a harder time getting a job. So they are increasingly majoring in business. They’re increasingly majoring in economics. They’re increasingly majoring in majors where employers expect them to get degrees in or majors in. It’s a little bit early for me. So sorry, if I’m not quite as articulate as I am, in the afternoon, this is always a tough time for me. I’ll warm up as we go on.

0:08:39.4Does grad school make you more qualified for a job?

Karina: [laughter] Well, that is no problem. This is really fascinating. And along with getting more school, obviously, the idea of being higher educated and being able to get a job easier is that the more education you go to the more qualified you are to have that job. So with nursing, or if you go to some sort of professional or graduate school is that you’re gonna be more qualified for that job. But do you think that’s true as the more graduate school programs you go to the more qualified you are gonna be for a job, or is it just a way for employers to distinguish between people who are fairly similar applicants?

Stuart Rojstaczer: Okay, so my bias, right now, I’m a retired professor is that more education is better than less education. So I want a more educated populace just reflexively. Now, does that bear itself out in terms of data? I’m not certain but at face value, more education should mean more qualifications, right? Somebody who gets a graduate degree in engineering is probably gonna be better at their job in engineering, at least the start than somebody who doesn’t that would be my bias. And there are people who would fight that notion, but I think we are better having a more educated society across the board. There’s this movement that college is worthless that it’s just a ticket that has no meaning. College is what you make it. And so if a student wants to learn, they can learn, and if a student doesn’t wanna learn you can lead them to water, but they don’t have to drink. As a whole, though I think the country benefits in terms of economic competitiveness. And actually, there was a book by two Harvard professors who are married and I’m gonna forget their name, and forget the title of the book, but it was... It came out several years ago, showing how the increase in education in America that took place over the 20th century, increased dramatically the economic competitiveness of this country.

So more education, on the whole is better than less education, both in terms of your own personal development and for the nation. So I think it’s actually, people don’t like to use the word patriotic, I do, well because people who use patriotic it is usually they’re way, way on the right-wing, and they’re not really patriotic, but I’m using it in the institutional sense. It’s the patriotic thing to do. It’s good for you. It’s good for the country.

Karina: Yes, definitely. And I definitely...

Stuart Rojstaczer: And it’s expensive. Yeah.

0:11:16.9How far should you take your education?

Karina: Yes, yeah, it is expensive. And yes, I definitely would not go so far as to say that college is worthless. And I’m sure you will not either as a university professor, but some people might argue that after years and years of education at some point, you have to get out into the workforce and actually put it to use. So if we do see this continuing trend of more education, some people might ask, "Well, where do we draw the line of this is how far you go before you can actually put your degree to use"

Stuart Rojstaczer: PhD, I don’t want to see anything past PhD.

Karina: Okay, that’s where we can draw the line is, PhD.

Stuart Rojstaczer: Right. And an MBA, I don’t really wanna see in a better thing... And a JD, I guess, there are higher degrees, you can get in business programs. I’m gonna show my ignorance, and in law programs, but you attain a certain level, that’s all you need. With a bachelor’s degree, you’re not gonna practice law. You need a JD, and you need to pass the bar. Actually, I think in California, it still is, it still may be possible to pass the bar without getting a law degree. But there are very few states where that’s the case. I think in California, it’s theoretically still possible to become a lawyer by simply passing the bar. It was at least 20 years ago. I don’t know if it’s true today. Yeah.

Karina: Well, that is so interesting.

Stuart Rojstaczer: But that’s rare.

Karina: Yeah. Of course.

Stuart Rojstaczer: So if you wanna be a lawyer, and you don’t wanna go to college or law school. If it’s still true, come to California and you can become a lawyer. You may not get employment because you won’t have the degree. [laughter]

0:12:52.4Getting an education without going to college

Karina: Yeah. So what are your thoughts on that? If somebody were to without going to law school, take the bar exam pass with, let’s say flying colors? I mean, obviously, that would be extremely difficult.

Stuart Rojstaczer: Then they are a genius. I would hire them at a New York Minute. Okay.

Karina: Okay.

Stuart Rojstaczer: I’m all for it. If someone has that kind of initiative, they must be special beyond special because they would have to learn all of the laws that you learn, virtually the essence of a law degree on their own. Talk about initiative. That’s just off the charts. I would hire that person in a New York minute, that would be amazing.

Karina: Yeah.

Stuart Rojstaczer: So if you do that, I will retain you as my personal lawyer how’s that.

Karina: Okay, yeah, that sounds pretty good. But on a realistic notes, a lot of universities are publishing virtual recordings of their lectures, so if a student couldn’t afford law school, they could theoretically go watch the lectures, learn it on their own, like you said, take that initiative and pass that bar exam, which is... It’s pretty impressive.

Stuart Rojstaczer: That would be incredibly impressive. Okay, I know that I did not wanna take chemistry in college, not because I thought it was hard, but because I am terrible in the lab, I’m so absent-minded that I would have ended up breaking glasses and probably needing stitches, and I was so frightened of going into the laboratory that I studied a year of Chemistry on my own, just the textbooks, took little homework assignments, and I took a test to pass out of chemistry and get credit for all of chemistry for the first year, just so I could avoid the lab and I was I think one of two people out of all the 150 to pass that test. But that was... I was motivated by fear that I would... I was gonna fail the lab portion of chemistry and I never wanted to be near a chemical lab, so whatever the motivation, if you have that kind of initiative, more power to you, and that was before online lectures were available you know I just read the textbook. Yeah.

0:15:08.7Thoughts on college rankings

Karina:Well that is amazing. And kinda switching gears a little bit, I wanted to get your thoughts on rankings because we have talked to a lot of people on here about rankings, our own site does some customized rankings, and with this consumer mindset, do you think that this ranking system where you get top 10 here, are the best schools based on sort of arbitrary cut and dry rankings. Do you think that’s a result of the kind of changing consumer mindset, or do you think it kind of spurred on this, well, let’s just look at these rankings and on decide which school I’m gonna go to just because that’s what they say is the best. And I’m sure it’s a combination of both, but what do you think, Is it a result of the consumer mindset or kind of spurred on this new...

Stuart Rojstaczer: Well U.S. News, which started this in any sort of major way and that’s the only reason why they still exist today. If they still exist, came... Their timing was impeccable because when they started, that’s when tuition started to dramatically rise, that’s when employers started to expect certain majors from students, so they timed it not on purpose, I’m sure it’s just perfect alignment for establishing a ranking system that looked rigorous, it wasn’t rigorous. Okay. But that looked important. And came from a reputable source. At the time, U.S. News is not the source that it once was, but it was the third tier in Weekly Magazine, so there was a second tier, there was Newsweek and Time, and back then everyone read those as some sort of apex of weekly journalism and then right below there, there was U.S. News, so they were reputable and they came up with this ranking system that had all these numbers and ranked schools to three significant digits, and they came at the time when people were nervous about college ’cause it was costing so much and the expectations were that you were gonna put out that kind of money, so it was sort of simultaneous discovery where parents and students became consumer-oriented and this thing emerged to supply a need at the precise time that that need was necessary, or at least in the eyes of people, because if you’re gonna be spending...

Back then, it was probably what at 1983, 1984, I’m gonna guess tuition in those dollars back then was... In the University of Wisconsin or most schools was probably in the range of $3000-$4000 which was about the cost of a Econo car, I’m paying a car, I never paid for a car for a college education, I better go to the right one, alright. And suddenly you had a reputable source providing "reputable". Providing you a quantitative assessment. And it gave you assurance. Right, It gave you assurance. And that’s really what people are looking for, assurance. Nobody... It was the same thing is true of a doctor, right, you pay a lot of money. Even if you’re insured, although now I’m in Medicare, I don’t pay anything, it’s wonderful, but anyway back in the day, my deductible was so high, you’re paying a lot of money for a procedure, you wanna go to the best one, Right, You’re feeling insecure. There’re probably a thousand professionals who could do the same thing, but you wanna find the best once you’re putting... Once the ante is so high for getting into a system, whether it be medicine or education, then you become obsessed with finding the best, whatever the best is, and the fact is that there are probably 400 excellent schools, California colleges in the United States that provide about the same level of education, and you could just randomly throw a dart at a board of a map of the United States.

And if you hit one of those 400, you’re good. Nobody likes to hear that. Right. They wanna know, "Well, what really is the best," and so ranking systems provide that kind of assurance in a time of emotional insecurity on the part of parents and students, so that sounds harsh. Emotional insecurity. Insecurity, We’ll just use insecurity. I don’t wanna... [chuckle]

I don’t wanna get anyone too mad, alright?

0:19:34.3Importance of the right college choice

Karina: Yes. No, I mean but it’s true because especially as the college admissions process has gotten even more competitive and the tuition cost has risen, like if you have to pay a car just to go to your public university, then all of a sudden you start looking at private universities or out-of-state universities and whatnot. So I think that is very clear, especially for students like me. You can kind of see how this mindset and these rankings have really taken off because there is such a desperate need for people to know that they’re making that right decision, so thank you...

Stuart Rojstaczer: Right. Everyone wants to know they are making the right choice for them beyond the a shadow of a doubt. And the fact is that back in the day you really didn’t think about that many choices. I applied to two schools, that was it. Okay, two schools. And they were both close by because I didn’t wanna be far from my parents, right. One was the local commuter school and the other one was a whole of 70 miles away. It seemed scary. But nowadays people are much more mobile. They have phones where they can talk to their parents. I noticed the college students, especially college women, are best friends with their moms and they’re living thousands of miles away or 500 miles away and they’re on the phone face timing with their moms all the time and it’s so cute to see. That wasn’t possible back then.

And people didn’t take planes. I didn’t fly a plane until I was 13 years old, and it was scary. Now people routinely fly planes, so we’re much more mobile physically, and we’re much more mobile in terms of electronically. And that allows people to think of not just two schools, the one two miles away from your home and the one 70 miles away from your home. But like hundreds of schools are possible. And then if you have the the idea that hundreds of schools are possible then you really do wanna pick the right one whereas back in my day, again sounding old, I didn’t think about what was the best. I said, "Okay, here are two, right."

It’s the same with dating. You go to these dating apps. There are millions of people so people obsess on trying to find the right one, right? And the fact is when I look back, and I’ve been happily married for 43 years, there were probably 100 people, 100 women, about my age who met my criteria. In my region that was it. And I picked one that I fell in love with. That was perfectly fine.

So the truth is that every one of the people who applies to school today could pick three schools that are local to their region, and they would have an opportunity to have an excellent education. But they don’t perceive that because those opportunities exist and they feel like, "We have to do it, we have to look at all 400." I would say that’s a fallacy, but I’m not gonna try to convince people of otherwise. Now, I’ve tried. I’ve been unsuccessful, alright? So my advice would be draw a map a 100 mile radius within your home town and pick three schools and be done with it. No one wants to listen to my advice, okay?

And by the way, I do have a ranking system of my own that is world renowned that was praised in Le Monde, in the French newspaper, actually it was. and you can look it up. It’s a random ranking generator is what it is. It randomly ranks schools. You press a button and it ranks them differently.

Karina: Wow. Well, we will leave that down below.

Stuart Rojstaczer: Okay. I think it’s still around. I created it in 2002 and I spend the $14.95 per year to keep it active.

0:23:30.9Sign Off

Karina: [chuckle] Wow, that’s awesome. But no, I think that is great advice for students, especially if they’re overwhelmed by the amount of choices or making a decision, is that really there are so many schools out there that you could be perfectly happy about. And like you said at the beginning of this interview, college is really what you make out of it. It’s not so much where you go, because I think come fall, first semester, wherever you are, you’re really gonna be happy if you strive to make it a good experience. So thank you so much for taking...

Stuart Rojstaczer: You’re welcome.

Karina: The time to talk with me. It was really a pleasure getting to talk to you. And yeah, I hope this helped a lot of students. So thank you.

Stuart Rojstaczer: I hope so too. Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

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