Friday, May 15, 2009

Dumbing down the college choice process

I've had plenty of experiences -- good and bad -- dealing with the media, but the most recent was really fun. I received a request through our news office to do an interview with a local TV station which was planning a story on whether college was still a good investment, and whether different types of colleges were better investments than others. I told them I was on sabbatical and in London, so they would have to work around that. Couple of days later I get an email from the reporter stating that he had been able to book a 15 minute block of satellite time at the London bureau of CBS news. He subsequently sent the location of the CBS bureau, and I was a bit peeved to see that it was about a 50 minute schlep by Tube from our house, but I was a good sport and said I would still do it.

The block of time was at 7:30 at night London time, so I squeezed myself into a sardine-tin Piccadilly line carriage for the bulk of the trip. I got set up for the interview, and the reporter came on from State College and asked me a series of questions about Penn State compared to other schools.

Well, you can guess what's coming. The story ran last night, and to say it dumbed down the college choice process was putting it mildly (yes, I should have expected this, knowing it was local TV in central PA). I should note that I blame the producer of the story more than the reporter. The story compared the "value" of a degree for three schools: South Hills Business School, a local for-profit 2-year institution; the University of Phoenix On-line; and Penn State. First, the reporter identified Penn State as a "liberal arts college." Second, the interview with me got edited in a way that made me look like a spokesperson for Penn State, rather than a professor. I was identified on the graphic just as "Don Heller, Penn State" -- at least, because it was television, people knew it wasn't the other Don Heller at Penn State. The piece was done in a way that it made me look and sound like a PR shill for Penn State.

Okay, enough whining. What this piece really made me think about was what happens if a piece like this was your main introduction to the college choice process. Approximately 3 1/2 minutes of glossed-over video comparing three higher education institutions that couldn't be more different from each other. A much better thought-out piece would have perhaps compared Penn State to Lock Haven to Juniata (and the relative costs of each, along with the expected returns) for a student considering a bachelor's degree. But something like that probably would have taken more research to pull off.

My favorite question, which unfortunately didn't make it to air, was this one: "Do you think students should be concerned about Penn State closing any time in the future, because of the economic crisis? Should they be worried that their Penn State diploma will be worthless if the institution closes?" After laughing in response to the question (which could be why they edited it out), I assured the reporter that while a handful of small, poorly-resourced, private colleges around the country had closed recently, that wasn't likely to happen to Penn State.

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