Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Can a college degree actually HURT you?

It's a bit of coincidence that just as I was writing about the declining value of college education, (see two preceding posts) along comes a story about someone who is actually being harmed by his decision to gain more education.

Let me introduce a friend of mine named Katy Lindberg. Katy runs her own insurance agency in Hastings, MN - you can see her agency page by clicking here - and she does a terrific job. I know that no one is excited about talking to an insurance agent, but Katy is as good as they come, and if you let her handle your insurance - auto, home, life, whatever - you'll never be sorry.

End of commercial. The story involves her husband, Andy, who wants to be an elementary school teacher. While preparing to enter the field, Andy made the decision to not just get a bachelor's degree in education, but a master's degree as well.

Now he's finding out that the master's degree is making it well-nigh impossible for him to even get interviewed for a teaching job. It's an illuminating story about one of the many detrimental effects unionization has had on education.

Up until about the midpoint of the 20th century, teachers were similar to free agents in football. You found a school to hire you, negotiated a contract and taught for a year. At the end of that year, if the school wanted you back, they made you another contract offer designed to keep you there. If you were a particularly good teacher, you often found yourself in a "bidding war" between schools, all of whom strove to find and hire the best possible teachers.

Then came the unionization of teachers and collective bargaining agreements. Instead of having each teacher paid based on his or her performance, the unions insisted on a scale for everyone. That led to the development of what is known as the "steps and lanes" system.

The way it works in most districts is that there is a big chart, with horizontal columns listing the number of years a teacher has taught (the "steps") and vertical columns listing the amount of education a teacher has (the "lanes.") Determining a teacher's salary is simply a matter of finding their spot on the grid. So every teacher with four years of experience and a bachelor's degree gets paid the same amount, regardless of their effectiveness.

(If I'm not describing this adequately, click here for a great visual example.)

What Andy has inadvertently done is price himself out of the market. By obtaining a master's degree, he has forced any district that hires him to pay him about 8% more than they would have to pay another rookie teacher with just a bachelor's degree. In a time when there is a surplus of teachers, and districts are fighting tight budgets, it seems unlikely that Andy will get a fair shake in the hiring process, no matter how gifted and talented a teacher he might be. And of course, Andy isn't allowed to say to a district, "Hire me, and pay me less," because the union won't allow that.

Two points:

#1. The time and money Andy spent obtaining his master's degree has not only failed to help him, it's actually HURT his job prospects. I think that's a great metaphor for the current problems in higher education that I alluded to in previous posts.

#2. An equal loser in this scenario is the education system itself, which finds it very difficult to weed out poor teachers, while at the same time unable to reward exceptional teachers. The steps-and-lane system works AGAINST the efficient distribution of education resources in a way that makes our children receive a poorer education than they would receive if schools were able to make pay and hiring decisions independent of the union scale.


  1. Thank you for eloquently stating my (as well as many others) problem and my issues with the education system. As one of Katy's friends put it..."Go get an education, but not too much or you won't get a job". The thing that irritates me the most is that I really enjoy teaching and am not that concerned about the money. Unfortunately, everyone else is.


  2. So you're saying I shouldn't get my Master's in Early Childhood Education?

    (If you don't know what I'm talking about, I left you a voicemail about 2 weeks ago.)