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Truth in lending a model for truth in learning

Eighteenth century British poet Alexander Pope is widely credited with saying “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” And if you’ve ever borrowed money from a bank, you’re familiar with the Truth in Lending (TIL) requirements. The lender must disclose how much the borrower will pay in interest, and how long the loan repayment term is. The big reveal is how much the borrower will pay in interest over the life of the loan.

Truth in Lending is not a bad approach for a lot of things. Something like Truth in Lending ought to apply to higher education. (Truth in Learning?) Colleges and universities should disclose their graduation rates in each program, and how much their graduates earn. A fair disclosure would also include how many graduates have full time jobs in their fields.

Colleges and universities are already supposed to collect this data, so this isn’t imposing any new requirements. But having the data and disclosing it are two different things. If we operate on the idea that “confession is good for the soul,” required disclosure of post-graduation employment should be a net positive for both the school and the student.

Truth in menus changed McDonald’s

Case in point. May 5, 2017 passed quietly for most people. In fact, the most conspicuous thing about the date was that Queen Elizabeth knighted Anna Wintour. But something did happen that has had a measurable impact on people in the United States. An FDA rule took effect that requires certain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menus.

McDonald’s is one of those restaurants that must post calorie counts. So, what has been the net result of the 2017 FDA ruling? McDonald’s annual revenue dropped 21% between 2017 and 2020. There are lots of potential reasons for declining revenue, and McDonald’s began losing revenue in the third quarter of 2014. But having to post calorie counts on its menus didn’t help McDonald’s very much.

The calorie counts may have induced consumers to eat less McDonald’s, but they also prompted McDonald’s to change its menu. To be sure, you can still get a Big Mac and large fries at McDonald’s (928 calories), but you can also get a Grilled Chicken Caesar Salad (230 calories).

So, if something akin to the FDA rule were applied to higher education institutions, what would be the result? If the Class of 2020 knew going into their degree programs that only 50% of them would have traditional, full-time jobs following graduation, would they have made the same academic decisions?

Truth in learning is essential for Washtenaw County

And if the institutions had to publicly disclose that only half of their students were fully employable following graduation, would they continue to offer the same tired and broken degree programs? Hopefully not. After all, if a prospective student knows that he has a 50% chance of getting a full-time job after graduation from one school, or a 90% chance of being fully employed after graduating from a different school, where is that student going to enroll?

It is time for the WCC administration to start having honest discussions about refocusing its mission on Washtenaw County, and returning value to the residents who have so generously supported it over the last 55 years. There is ample opportunity for real economic investment here. Inexplicably, the WCC Administration has chosen to cater to students from outside the county. These students – many of whom will never set foot in Washtenaw County or contribute to its economic well-being – benefit from the extensive investment we have made in our community college at our expense.

It is time for the WCC Administration to start being honest with itself and with the residents of Washtenaw County about the value it brings to our table.

Photo Credit: Tim Abbott , via Flickr.