The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?

Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education?

twocharts450Earlier this week, Chemjobber blogged about the regrettable employment situation for chemists. The centerpiece of the post was a graphic, which originally appeared in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on 2012 employment numbers. The figure represented the unemployment numbers, broken down by highest level of education completed and the associated wages for those employed in each group.

Chemjobber amended the graphic with both the ACS member unemployment numbers (also by degree), plus the BLS numbers in the category “chemists and material scientists.” The result is powerful. Chemjobber summed it up:

As you can note, chemists come out worse in every single apples-to-apples comparison on all equivalent degree holders.

Not. Good.

A further irony is found in the title of the original graphic, which Chemjobber retained: “Education Pays.” Well, yes, if you’re employed, your salary will generally increase with level of education (except for the slight dropoff from “Professional degree” to “Doctoral degree”).

However, if you have the misfortune of being among the unemployed—the numbers are even worse for recent graduates—your return on investment is currently zero. This adds insult to injury, particularly if you attended an expensive private institution and have a seemingly insurmountable student loan debt to pay off. “Education Pays” then sounds derisive.

The soaring cost of higher education was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and former professor at Syracuse University.

The title refers to an effort to provide more affordable higher education opportunities:

One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California.

To achieve these cost cuts, there is a reliance on distance learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOC) and other formats. Understandably, this goal has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism:

Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities.

Brooks then strongly disagrees with the notion that this effort will only amount to “awarding degrees that are worthless to people.” As he then points out:

I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got way back in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made.

He describes how he was able to take correspondence courses and other means to obtain an bachelor’s degree. But that wasn’t the end:

I followed the 10K-B.A. with a 5K-M.A. at a local university while working full time, and then endured the standard penury of being a full-time doctoral fellow in a residential Ph.D. program. The final tally for a guy in his 30s supporting a family: three degrees, zero debt.

Okay, I recognize that the American Enterprise Institute is a conservative think tank, the primary coverage was by the National Review, and all three governors mentioned as supporters are Republicans who do not shy away from controversy. So my (mostly) non-conservatism is on high alert when considering this proposal. However, I must admit I do share Brooks’ disdain for intellectual snobbery, which I agree is not a prerequisite nor a substitute for intellectual rigor.

I can imagine several fields where this could work: accounting, political science, history, etc. But chemistry? This article (from Fox News—see previous paragraph) describes a scenario where, yes, you can:

Under one model being implemented in Texas, only high school students who graduate with at least a 2.5 grade-point average and complete at least 30 hours of college credit are eligible. They then a spend a year at Southwest Texas Junior College before completing their degrees at Sul Ross State University Rio Grande College, where they must maintain a 3.0 grade-point average and take 15 hours of classes per semester. If those criteria are met, students can graduate with a bachelor’s degree in biology, chemistry or mathematics.

I want to suspend my disbelief, but I feel the value of a 10K bachelor’s degree in chemistry may be limited for subdisciplines which place a premium on undergraduate research at the bench. The cost of maintaining the lab space and infrastructure necessary to support undergraduate research would likely exclude them from a 10K curriculum. However, low-cost degrees in these areas may be enough to be a springboard to graduate school. Those are my initial impressions—but perhaps I, too, am guilty of snobbery.

Maybe there are some chemistry fields of study where the 10K degree could lead directly to employment. I’d like to think so, but the current job market makes that a tough sell. With the supply of chemists with newly-earned bachelor’s degrees already exceeding the demand, a comparison to others with more traditionally-obtained degrees would likely have the 10K degree holders at a disadvantage.

Except when it comes to student debt.

Author: Glen Ernst

Chemistry and pharma researcher and manager. Lifelong passion for science, the arts and language. Blogger for CENtral Science, also blogging as The Scientist Next Door. LinkedIn:

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  1. Glen, my BS (blatant statement) detectors also activate when I hear sounds from the right. The Texas plan mentioned in the Fox News article says that a student would have to have one year of college (30 credits) before entering the program and spending one year at a junior college and then two years at a four-year school for $3333/year if grade minimums are maintained. That’s a great deal for the student. But where does the rest of the money come from? The state of Texas? I find that hard to believe.

    Taking some courses online could help reduce costs, but chemistry majors need to be in actual labs.

    It is unfortunate that the acronym “MOOC” is pronounced “mook”; it gives the concept a negative connotation.

  2. Outside the U.S., B.A.s under 10K are the norm, even at internationally-prestigious schools. Of course, there is a lot of public funding behind that, but it is certainly not an impossible goal.