The Consumer and US Higher Education

Demonstrating that US Higher Education provides real benefits to society is essential. Society’s considerable support of higher education in federal and state funding merits it. Consumers – parents and students – deserve it in order to make wise choices among colleges and universities. America deserves it for its global competitiveness.

Two reports in the last month provide relevant criticism and direction. The first is from The Economist and the second comes from the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions. The Economist’s criticism readily acknowledges that the results of a college education are clear.  Those with more education, especially a college degree, receive higher incomes. This relationship of income to college degree does not, however, prove that higher education is responsible. For those of us with long-term experience in higher education, we know the truth. Excellent learning opportunities abound in our best schools. Good advising helps to lead to career-enlarging choices by students. But despite best efforts, a student can coast by with reasonable intelligence and choices of less demanding majors and easier classes. Too many do.

Society is the loser.   When students graduate with little improvement in their knowledge and skills, US capacity to innovate and become more productive is harmed. We hear repeatedly from recruiters that graduates are too often ill-prepared. Re-training by the hiring business is a major, unnecessary expense; it should not be the norm.

While The Economist’s article, Excellence versus Equity, challenges the notion that US higher education is responsible for post-graduation income improvement, the recent work of the Senate Committee on Education offers potential direction. It points to the opportunity to alter the data provided from schools and it points to the need to alter how those data are used as information for parents and prospective students. It does so in its report, Federal Postsecondary Data Transparency and Consumer Information Concepts and Proposals.

Having had ultimate reporting responsibility at two higher educational institutions as president, I was consistently frustrated by the level of institutional resources devoted to federal reporting and discouraged by the inadequacy of the resulting consumer data. That is why as President of Colorado State University (CSU), I instituted the College Portrait to provide consumers with more information about CSU’s outcomes. It was why I sponsored a trial at CSU of the Collegiate Learning Assessment as a potential means to measure the value added for undergraduates by their education. It was also why I sponsored considerable improvements to the student career services as President of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and why I serve on the Advisory Board of AfterCollege, a career path service for college students.

Just graduating is not enough. It is not enough to warrant the investment and expense of college degrees. It is not enough to satisfy students and parents. It is not enough to meet the needs of society, and it is not enough to retain America’s global competitiveness. Change is essential, and that means collecting the right data in order to provide usable information to consumers. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is a potentially positive step.

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