Thursday, January 08, 2015


Higher ed folks: would you send your kid to your college?

In high-tech circles, they’ve coined a verb -- “dogfooding” -- for the mandate that people who work at a company use its product.  It’s based on the old line about “eating your own dog food.”  It’s why people at Microsoft have to use Surface tablets, instead of ipads, or why you don’t see many Toyotas in the parking lot at Ford headquarters.  The idea is that you’ll understand your product better if you add the user’s perspective to the producer’s perspective.

Within higher education, dogfooding is often vicarious.  College faculty and administrators typically already have degrees.  Some go back for doctorates, but that’s a very different experience than undergraduate education.  But sometimes they send their kids to college, and suddenly gain the perspective of the student’s parent.

I’ve spoken to a few of those over the last couple of years.  It’s illuminating.

Several professors have mentioned, separately,that they never really paid attention to book costs until their kids started reporting/passing along what they had to pay.  When you get the bill yourself, the abstract suddenly becomes concrete.  Any individual book may seem reasonable enough, but when you add them up over a full courseload, the total can be alarming.  

But the processes are the most revealing part.  Suddenly seeing registration, advising, and financial aid processes from the student side can be bracing.  From the inside, it’s easy to fill in the gaps with the accumulated knowledge of years.  But from the outside, when you don’t have that knowledge, the gaps suddenly loom large.  That perspective can go a long way in shaping process improvements, when someone is in a position to translate.

When colleges launch capital campaigns, it’s common for serious donors to ask how many members of the board of trustees contributed.  I’m wondering if it might be useful to show what percentage of faculty and staff with children older than high school age sent their kid to the college where they work.  Presumably, if none do, that’s a bad sign.

I’m not saying that everybody should, of course.  People don’t give up their right to choose a college when they work at one, any more than they give up their right to vote when they take a public sector job.  No college, no matter how good, is right for every student.  When I looked for a college for myself, one of my non-negotiables was that it had to be too far from home to commute.  That wasn’t a reflection on the quality of anything nearby; I just wanted out.  I’m not suggesting denying anyone else the same freedom I had.  

But given how many students stay within, say, an hour of home when choosing a college, it might be interesting to publish statistics on the percentage of employee families who eat their own dog food.

Since public disclosure is all the rage, do you think it would be helpful if colleges of a certain size published statistics on employee dependents who attend?