Monday, October 21, 2013

College as a Consumer Product

Living with three high-school grandchildren brings back parental days of anxiety about getting into the best possible college. But the question is: What is the definition of best?

When U.S. News & World Report issued its annual rankings last month, there were no surprises: Princeton, Harvard, Yale, motherhood and apple pie, everything in order.

But there are critics, starting with Barack Obama and his Education Secretary. The list, observed the President, “encourages a lot of colleges to focus on ways the numbers—-and it actually rewards them, in some cases, for raising costs." Arne Duncan echoes him by observing “it has created a lot of perverse incentives.”

As families wait for those engraved envelopes by the mailbox, a New York Times columnist has observed, “The rankings exacerbate the status anxiety that afflicts so many high school students. The single-minded goal of too many high school students-—pushed by parents, guidance counselors and society itself--is to get into a ‘good’ school. Those who don’t land a prestigious admission feel like failures. Those who do but lack the means often wind up taking on onerous debt--a burden that can last a lifetime.”

Making college education a consumer product puts four years of hard work, great expense and critical life experience into the same category as cosmetic ads that promise but never define a secret ingredient that guarantees success.

“You can bash people over the head with information about how empty, useless, or bad-for-you some things are, yet lots of folks will still want to consume them,” says a retired professor and critic of the lists. “Each of us has some kind of tripe that sustains us.”

But buyers should beware, and some are.

To quote a wise-beyond-his-years grandson, “the school I choose will not determine my eventual income, but rather the work I put in and skills I have.” Whatever college he attends will be enriched by him and others like him by much more than the tuition they collect.

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