May 19, 2013

Prospective students need career guidance

PLATTSBURGH — Today is graduation at SUNY Plattsburgh and at my daughter’s college, Tufts. I realize I have made a terrible mistake.

When I was a business-school dean, I irked some by viewing students as customers. I was wrong. We shouldn’t be catering to our customers’ every desire. They can’t always get what they want. But, if we try sometime, we just might provide them with what they need.

The burden of student debt is taking on housing-crisis proportions. We are offering loans to some who will not have the capacity to repay. In any other sector, this would be a travesty. In education, it is business as usual.

My daughter began college as a political-science major. Bless her heart for studying something she found interesting, and the hearts of her parents who would foot much of the bill. I offered her a proposition. If she would also study something with higher employment odds, I promised her a handsome graduation gift. I suggested economics. She asked if I was bribing her. I told her that economists call it an incentive. She is already grateful for the bribe.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon of late, I was chatting with my friend Paul over a wine tasting. We both realized public education is not just for 18-year-olds. Taxpayers subsidize public education because we need a well-trained workforce for a vibrant economy.

Yet, much of our public education is designed to cater to the whims of 18-year-olds. Health and education are the two largest sectors of government spending in our country. But, while we all insist healthcare spending must make us healthier and more productive, it’s more difficult to determine what sort of education is best for our investment.

We devote very little research to determine which sectors will need a greater supply of workers. We neglect a supply side based on global competitiveness, emerging industries and sustainable economies. Instead, we leave educational decisions to the whimsical demand of those who have barely entered adulthood.

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