The United States Department of Education made headlines Monday (June 8, 2015) announcing that it would forgive the federal student loans for former students of Corinthian Colleges Inc., the now-defunct for-profit post-secondary education company that operated the Everest, Heald College, and WyoTech chains of colleges. According to news reports, the total bill could reach $3.5 billion if all federal loans to Corinthian students are forgiven.
The Department of Education had fined Corinthian’s Heald College, which operates mostly in California, $30 million in April for allegedly providing inaccurate information about graduate’s job prospects at each of its twelve campuses. In a scenario reminiscent of the sub-prime mortgage loan debacle, Corinthian (and other leading for-profit education companies) have been accused of luring low-income, often minority students into expensive courses and federal students loans, often in IT (information technology) related fields, that led not to higher paying jobs and better opportunities, but rather a modern form of debt peonage.
Heald College, in particular, had a number of campuses in the Silicon Valley and is one of a number of for-profit colleges and universities in the Silicon Valley that have a long history of peddling courses, certificates, and degrees that will allegedly enable students to get high paying “technology” jobs. It is common especially during boom periods such as the late 1990’s dot com bubble and the current mobile mania, to encounter advertising for these programs that often appears aimed at minorities that are underrepresented in the “tech” industry, notably the Silicon Valley’s large Hispanic population. Not infrequently, the advertising and marketing campaigns reference government reports and industry claims of a desperate shortage of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workers and especially programmers.
Technology industry leaders frequently express concern about the allegedly poor state of K-12 education in the United States and specifically poor educational opportunities for “minorities,” meaning primarily Hispanics and African-Americans. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously donated $100 million to struggling schools in Newark, New Jersey, with disappointing results. The widely viewed code.org inspirational video on teaching “coding” in schools features minority students from the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is noted for his education reform efforts and driving role in the controversial Common Core education standards.
Technology leaders often explicitly or implicitly blame the “pipeline” for the notoriously low numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics with leadership or engineering jobs at major technology companies. The problem is awful education at the K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th grade) level, like those terrible schools in Newark, they seem to say. The Silicon Valley is a meritocracy and if only the schools would produce qualified minorities, the technology industry would welcome them with open arms.
With occasional exceptions, the major, mostly advertising funded mass media repeats these claims without criticism. A notable exception is the article “Tech jobs: minorities have degrees but don’t get hired” by Elizabeth Weise and Jessica Guynn, USA Today, Oct, 13, 2014. They found that leading technology employers focus recruitment on very elite programs such as UC Berkeley, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, Caltech (shameless plug for my alma mater), and so forth where Hispanics and African-Americans are quite rare and avoid lower-ranked but accredited and often cheaper schools where most Hispanics and African-Americans who do get CS and other technical degrees attend. Heald and similar schools are far, far outside this charmed inner circle.
It is hardly surprising given these claims of desperate shortages and meritocracy that many members of minority and low income groups fall prey to questionable claims by Heald and similar operations. It is worth emphasizing that the federal government and the Obama Administration are major purveyors of the desperate STEM worker shortage claims. They bear some responsibility for promoting these beliefs among low income and minority groups, especially since President Obama is a member of a minority group and likely to be trusted as “one of us.”
The Quest for the Rockstar Ninja
It is important for minorities, the general public, and policy makers to realize that technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and many others are extremely picky in hiring and retaining employees in programming and other STEM professions. Microsoft, for example, has announced two rounds of major layoffs (about 3000 employees in 2008 and 18-20,000 in 2014) at the same time senior executives and company representatives were claiming they could not find “qualified” employees. Nor is Microsoft unusual among major technology companies. Joe Green, the first head of the FWD.us immigration reform lobbying group, self-destructed when asked about this obvious contradiction by interviewer Alix Steel.
Many major technology companies have little publicized “Stack and Rank” employment policies that apparently require that ten percent of the employees be laid off each year. Microsoft, in particular, was taken to task in a widely read Vanity Fair article that blamed its faltering fortunes on Stack and Rank. It is difficult to reconcile the Stack and Rank policies with a desperate shortage of STEM workers.
There is in fact a rich literature of books and articles debunking the STEM worker shortage claims in professional trade journals, academic and scholarly journals, and other specialized sources. A good example is Robert Charette’s article “The STEM Crisis is a Myth” in IEEE Spectrum. Although there are a number of notable exceptions, the major mass media usually does not repeat the well-documented and well-supported points in these articles.
I have certainly met executives at technology companies who seemed to have problems hiring programmers and other STEM workers. However, on close examination, it has almost always turned out they were looking for “rockstar ninja,” “10X,” even “100X” programmers or “super programmers” or other super STEM workers. And by “10X” or “rockstar” they mean a hypothetical STEM worker who is ten times better — according to some ill-defined scale — than the typical CS or other STEM degree holder from a top elite school such as Stanford, MIT, Carnegie-Mellon, or Caltech (shameless plug again). This shortage of fantasy super-employees has little to do with realistic career prospects for most STEM workers including minorities — or more accurately members of minorities that are underrepresented in the technology industry which after all has a high percentage of non-white STEM workers.
The Corinthian Colleges scandal illustrates the high human and fiscal cost (up to $3.5 billion) of the STEM shortage claims. Whether well-intentioned or not, minorities and many others are not helped, but actively hurt, by promoting unrealistic and inaccurate ideas about career prospects in STEM fields including software engineering/programming/”coding.”
© 2015 John F. McGowan
About the Author
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing gesture recognition for touch devices, video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visual Basic and many other programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs developing computer vision algorithms and software for mobile devices. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.