Saturday, August 2, 2008

"The Fix." A Longtime Reader Opines on Ralph Nader, Consumer Reports, and Different Types of College Education.

Everyone needs a good education and we are nowhere near providing this. Part of the reason is that we assume everyone needs the same education. A good education for one person may be meaningless to another.

I do research and teach at a mid to lower level comprehensive university. We have a PhD program in philosophy and offer an associates degree in physical therapy. We have courses in quantum mechanics and auto mechanics. Our most popular majors are psychology, communications and fashion design. Most of these students probably end up working at the mall (but who knows, the psychology major may be a better parent than his equally low paid sans degree co-workers).

Graduates from our aviation management program earn top dollars working at our nation's airports. And some of our science graduates go on to do graduate work at major universities. We have a world renowned music program. Our six year graduation rate is 40%.

Students and their families are ill equipped to sort through the maze of options. A simple example. We offer a bachelors degree in dental hygiene while the community college down the road has an associate’s degree program in dental hygiene. Does it make any difference? The lucky student will have a cousin who took the four year plan. This cousin might gripe that for all the extra time and money spent she earns no more than her colleagues with two year degrees, or she may boast how she quickly rose through the ranks and has come to really appreciate those shows on PBS. But, most families will have no such connections.

I once had a conversation with two young women who had degrees in management, or was it marketing, who had grown tired of dead end jobs and were now enrolled at the community college's nursing program. They could afford this because they had each married an engineer. Most people can't afford do-overs after realizing they made the wrong choice. (I am reminded of the Talking Heads song Seen and not Seen.) Of course, if they had started at the community college they would have never met their current mates!

All readers of RYS know many similar stories. So, what is to be done? People need much more information and it needs to be in a form they can use. They need a Consumer Reports. They need a Ralph Nader. Instead they get U.S. News & World Report, self-serving college websites and Margaret Spellings. If you buy a lemon of a car, you are screwed -- it will take you a few years for recover from the loss. But, getting a useless college degree is very hard to recover from. The information people need cannot be gleaned from statistics gathered from colleges and universities. Consumer Reports does not determine a car's safety by asking the manufacturer, they do it by testing the car itself.

The information can only come from surveying college graduates (and the non-degreed). We need large surveys done by a disinterested party with aim of finding what types of education serve different types of people, both in terms of income and other forms of life satisfaction. Where will our Ralph Nader come from?