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.
Paul noted there are but a dozen professional bassoon players in this country, but music programs graduate 10 times that number each year. Each graduate has the hope of finding a professional position. A year later, their bassoons are in the closet (including my daughter’s).
This problem is relatively unique in our economy. A shortage of medical specialists causes salaries to rise and more medical students direct themselves there. The difference is that they are already in their mid-20s, more tied to market forces than they were at 18, and the profession and medical schools are more tightly integrated.
President Obama has recognized this problem and has proposed that education institutions be required to report such things as employment rates upon graduation to their prospective students. It is unclear whether this initiative will also indicate the placement success rate of individual disciplines. I imagine that such an extension will be met with resistance.
Representatives of academic disciplines make a valid point. Colleges teach values that are important, even if they satisfy limited job demand. But perhaps we can agree that to provide better information to our students is always better than providing incomplete information.
Better yet, we should offer prospective students some indication of how successful graduates are 10 years later.
Imagine if there was no professional responsibility for financial experts to represent our interests. Or, for doctors to provide treatments that might be good for their bank account but bad for our health. We regulate those who guide investments in our health, finances and legal decisions. Eighteen-year-olds should expect the same responsibility as we guide them in their investment in human capital.
I agree with the president that better information, starting with guidance counselors in high school and ending with assistance in finding jobs, and with better communication between professions and colleges, cannot help but improve our nation’s competitive advantage and our students’ success.
If we abdicate this responsibility, we risk of our children’s future with confusing advice from educators like me. Let information prevail — not just for our children’s sake, but for the sake of a nation that will soon be suffering severe shortages in some areas and will be failing to compete globally with other nations that have a more cohesive system.
Colin Read contributes to Bloomberg.com and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Follow his tweets at @ColinRead2040.