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Getting Their Money’s Worth in Education: Traditional Students Thinking Like Consumers

Getting Their Money’s Worth in Education: Traditional Students Thinking Like Consumers
Driving the national completion rate begins before enrollment. It’s critical for students to have a consumer’s mindset when they are deciding on their postsecondary pathway.
Why did one of my best students of the last two years decide to go to community college rather than UC Santa Cruz? Because, she’s smart. When I first met her, she really wanted to get that “college experience.” Unfortunately, as an aspiring restaurateur, she could justify to me neither the curriculum nor the cost of UCSC.

Back in my previous career, I served as an expert witness in a the class action lawsuit against Le Cordon Bleu (the California Culinary Academy) from which I’d graduated, with honors, and at whose graduation ceremony I’d recently given a keynote speech. The plaintiffs hired me because I was also a chef, restaurateur and president of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. The plaintiffs won, but did not call me to testify in court because I thought that all parties had behaved negligently.

The for-profit school was charging $50,000 for a two-year Associate of Science in Culinary Arts and Restaurant Management. They had over-promised and under-delivered on job placement help, career opportunities, starting pay and more. Students with no experience and an expensive degree were understandably upset that the only jobs they could get upon graduation were entry level, and they couldn’t afford to pay back the only loans that never go away.

However, the plaintiffs were completely unfamiliar with the industry. Their depositions read as though they’d seen an ad for the school while watching Food Network and thought, “That looks cool, I could do that.” Their middle-class parents then leapt in to encourage them to “get an education.” And so, without ever interviewing a chef or restaurateur about their career paths and the nature of the industry, they chose a career goal. Having never worked in a restaurant, they chose their workplace. They did no research on other schools or the nature of the job market. In short, without due diligence, these students based their career path choice on information gleaned from a commercial! Then they willingly mortgaged into the notion that they could just buy a degree and graduate as the next Wolfgang Puck or Gordon Ramsay.

They were terrible consumers of education. Like someone who buys a car without taking a test drive or reading consumer reports. They got all their information from the dealer. They never conducted any research, let alone a cost-benefit analysis. They believed that the education is the goal, and with it comes success.

They believe in life as an episode of American Idol.

So what do we do? Well, I start my juniors off with writing their future resumes—for when they’re 30. I want them to picture where and how they’re living. They’re required to map out at least one educational step after high school, an entry-level job and/or internship, and at least a three more career steps until they get to 30, with no jobs lasting less than a year. And the ladder has to be rational. For example, you couldn’t go from dishwasher to executive chef without a few steps in between. Students have to research the jobs, careers and industries they want to have and work in, how much they pay, and what it takes to get there. They have to figure out the right schools and degrees for that career path, and also the cost of that path, to see if it makes sense financially. How much is that loan going to cost per year? Might community college be a better route? Are there job-training programs paid for by the companies? What do people in the industry recommend? Is this industry growing?

My objective in this exercise is to get students to see that college — however they define it — should be a part of their career objectives, and keeping both in mind (the degree and the career) can only lead to better decision-making along the way. Students who go to college with a purpose tend to finish. The student I referenced earlier will be going to City College of San Francisco’s well-respected culinary arts and restaurant management program for an AOS, while living at home, and follow that up with two years at any of a number of four-year colleges that offer business degrees specializing in hospitality management. She will graduate in four to five years with a pair of valued and relevant degrees and high quality internships, work experience and mentors.

Even better, she will become a triple threat at about half the cost of the “college experience.”

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