Higher Education Is Broken, But Not How You Imagine

Author: Matt Morava

It’s Not The Financial Cost That Matters Most

Higher education is currently facing a number of significant challenges and while most of the focus has been placed on the high cost of education and student loan debt, both serious challenges, the financial cost is not the issue that matters most.

You can read more about the high cost of education in Dylan Matthews’ brilliant series here — Tuition Is Too Damn High!

The focus should be on what that debt is ultimately leveraging.

I was recently invited to speak to a class of graduating seniors on their careers and career development and I began the talk with a question, “How many of you know what you’re doing after graduation?” Two students raised their hands. I then asked, “How many of you want to be entrepreneurs?” Two more raised their hands. “So, what are are the rest of you going to do?” Blank stares. This was in a class of over 30 students. I wish this lackluster response was uncommon, but it’s not.

So, how did we get here?

You have to back up a bit to understand how this has come to be.

By the time a student hits my “Intro to Management and Organizational Development” course, they’ve had close to 14 years in the U.S. education system. Meaning the impacts I witness are far downstream. The U.S. does pre-kindergarten and K-5 as well as any nation in the world, but once puberty hits, our education system goes off the rails.

How do I know this? I see the results everyday in my classroom: a lack of passion, a lack of commitment, a lack of curiosity, a lack of a sense of self, and a lack of self responsibility… the ability to respond to the challenges they face. I’m not saying that this is true for all students or that these kids are flakes and rebels without a clue, it’s rather that they have had the life sucked out of them and they’re just trying to get through one more hoop on the way to a “final” graduation. They’ve had 16+ years of following set curricula and rules by the time they graduate from university. That’s soul crushing.

A fellow professor said to my class this quarter, “Take a break and if you need to use the little boy’s room now’s the time.” I chimed in, “Or the men’s room.” But it betrayed the reality that today’s 20 yo is closer to a polite 15 yo than an actual adult.

Ask any 8 yo what they want to be when they grow up and they will readily have an answer for you. Ask a soon to be college grad and they’re overwhelmed with the possibility of it all and faced with that dreaded word… potential.

They’ve just spent the last 16 years of their lives being separated from their internal navigation system, desires, and natural talents. School systems can be as destructive as they are meant to be liberating; they can cast a dark shadow.

We’ve overprotected and underchallenged this generation and they’re going to pay hell for it when they hit the work world.

The Persistent Myths of Higher Education

There are three persistent myths about university and higher education that must be exposed:

  1. That universities exist to serve students.
  2. That universities successfully educate students.
  3. That universities prepare students for their careers.

Myth One — Universities Exist for Students

If you look at the formation of university system (starting with the University of Bologna, founded in 1088) you realize that universities actually exist to bring really smart people together in order to conduct research and experiments, with the sole purpose of transferring and generating new knowledge.

Most universities pride themselves on being research institutions and generating new knowledge is the primary goal. That old adage of “publish or perish” exists because of the drive for new knowledge.

Professors spend a majority of their time and effort in the pursuit of generating new knowledge and teaching students, especially undergraduates, is far, far down their list of priorities. Now, there are plenty of professors who love to teach, but it’s not a job requirement. Students are paying for the privilege of access to brilliant minds. That’s the original model. Students hope that these brilliant minds have developed a curricula that will start the student on the road to becoming an expert in a particular field, but even that is somewhat of a new concept for the university model.

That’s great if you’re at MIT and working on wearable technology or at Harvard Medical School working on a cure for diabetes (the current system works best for students pursuing medical, technology, computer science, mathematical and engineering degrees) but for most students that access comes at a severe premium. If you’re not pursuing a degree in one of those fields, how helpful is it to be at university? There’s value, to be sure, but $25K (on average) worth of debt value? That’s what’s being called into question.

Myth Two — The University is Designed to Educate Students

This one might seem surprising, but it’s true. The average university student takes two years of general education and then two years focused on a specific major. A major is a curriculum made up of both core and elective courses. What’s the matter with this approach?

The student experience is taking classes, getting grades, and graduating. Classes are rarely interconnected, no overarching competency development and testing, no team teaching or interdisciplinary work. Sometimes there’s a capstone or graduate thesis, but mostly the student are left to fend for themselves to make connections. Most faculty are in deep silos. I ran a negotiations exercise in class the other day and a few students said that they were surprised there was math in a “psychology” course. That made me smile.

Then there are the grades. I sometimes ask my students, “Okay, out of all the classes you’ve taken so far, which ones would you have made a commitment to, gotten up each and every day and attended class and done the homework, if you didn’t receive a grade?” I challenge them further, “What if there weren’t grades at all, wasn’t a degree you were pursuing, but rather you were here to learn, grow, and develop yourself to become the best professional you can be… which classes would you take then?” Thank God all can name a few classes (I try to make my classes one of them) but most students would toss 80% (guesstimate) of the classes they’ve taken out the door.

Grades and degrees mask a lot of waste.

The other thing to keep in mind about grades is that they’re mostly ineffective in changing negative behaviors and developing the right skills, attitudes, and positive behaviors to be successful in life. Grades and degrees also keep students passive about developing their passions and skills.

Myth Three — The University Prepares Students for a Career

I’m having lunch with a former student and he says, “I’ve learned more in the last three months in my new position, than I did over the four years of my degree.” The gulf between academia and the post postmodern corporation are huge. Most universities are focused, at least in business schools, on the triple bottom line and ethics. And that’s awesome; however, most corporations are focused on the bottom line.

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There’s a pace, set of behaviors, and professional mindset that universities aren’t matching. Both Law School and Medical School do a decent job of preparing you for the intensity of the professions, and in some cases, school is harder than the profession itself, but most liberal arts degrees, while opening your mind and heart, are not quickening your pace.

I have a simple midterm.

I ask the students if they’d like to take the midterm and let them know that they can say yes or no, and if they say yes, I will give them feedback and share with them if I would hire them or not based on what I’ve seen so far from their attitude, behaviors, teamwork, and work products.

I’ll come right out and tell a student I wouldn’t hire them, if that’s the case. It’s honest, direct, out in the open and if you think “mean spirited” then you’re misguided. What’s mean is not giving these kids real and honest feedback that they can use to grow and learn and become better professionals. There’s a handful of students I wouldn’t hire in each class and for good reason. I let them know. I also let the students know why I would hire them, which is equally valuable information.

Students love it. Every single student. Out of the hundreds I’ve done this with over the years, not a single one has said no to the midterm and they rate it high on the end of course feedback.

They want more of it.

They seek it out.

They go to career counseling looking for that kind of honest feedback and are often disappointed. We need more honest and open conversation on a whole host of metrics so students can learn and grow. They need 360’s from their peers and they need professional input.

Solutions for Higher Education

  • Hire Both Teachers and Researchers — Universities should make a point of hiring teachers who love to teach, but aren’t interested in generating new knowledge. Two separate tracks for faculty, one focused on research and the other focused on teaching. Students then can get the best of both worlds.
  • Team Taught Courses — Nothing is more valuable to a student than to hear different perspectives and approaches to a similar topic. Gone is the “sage on the stage” and what’s more important now is to help students make sense of all the information, data, and perspectives that exist in an open, connected world. Expertise is more important than ever, but having tenure doesn’t exclude other expertise in today’s knowledge economy.
  • Integrated Curricula — Everything is interconnected, except in a college class, where the disciplines still rule. Math without behavior, behavior without math, makes less sense these days.
  • Flipped Classrooms Across the Board — The technology is more than proven at this point. There’s no need for more than a few live lectures every quarter/semester. Education technology can build the knowledge content and faculty time is better spent in a coaching modality.
  • Individual Development Plans — Some students enter college knowing what they want to do, most don’t. Academic planning should support personal and professional development, not the other way around.
  • Comprehensive Exams and Senior Projects for All Majors — There should be some kind of capstone project that allows the student to demonstrate back their emerging skills and expertise. Ideally, that final exam and project lead to immediate placement in an organization. Universities need to create their own HackerRank for every single major and competency.
  • Last Quarter or Semester Focused On Launching Career — It’s amazing to me that when students need to be spending the most time focused on launching their careers, they have the least amount of it. Last quarters/semesters often are spent in heavy academic course loads, prepping for graduation, and intense social engagements. The party ends, graduation is over, and now what?
  • Leadership as a Degree Option — If you don’t have a major and/or are wanting to grow as a person and professional, then “Leadership” should be the major. Not as a business major, but a degree offering that allows you to flourish as a person and professional.
  • Enhanced Internships and Study Abroad — As it’s currently designed, students have three summers and a study abroad to identify and sharpen their professional identity. We don’t like to label and identify, but the world runs on specialization. Jacks of All Trades and the Well Rounded Person stumble in life. There’s no reason why each summer can’t be a time of exploration and growth as a professional and tied into the university curriculum. Same with study abroad. It would be better if it were less “study” and more “work” abroad.

Specifically For University Career Development Centers

  • Career Coaches, Not Counselors — Therapy is a passive model that doesn’t serve career development, in my experience. I know there’s a “next gen” of career counselors out there who are more dynamic and less passive, but I hear from students all the time how lame their respective career centers are. And lame is the word used most often. If I were creating a career center, I wound’t hire anybody who couldn’t act as a recruiter, networker, coach, point blank Boss, and all around “go the mat for you” professional. In my last two classes, I’ve had two people plucked out and hired on the spot. AND I LOVE IT. I love getting students started in their careers. That passion should be the number #1 hiring criteria.
  • Career Coaches Who’ve Had P&L Responsibility — Again, if I were building a career center I wouldn’t hire anybody who hadn’t had direct P&L responsibilities in a career outside of academia.
  • Career Coaches Who’ve had Hiring (and firing) Responsibilities — By the time I was 28, I’d hired and fired dozens of people. Granted, I had worked in retail where there’s a high turnover, but still, if you’ve never had to make a hiring decision in your life that mattered… how are you an effective career counselor?
  • Career Coaches Who’ve Been Successful Outside of Academia — Okay, so you’ve had P&L responsibilities, you’ve hired and fired, but have you been successful? Promoted? How have you grown? A career that shows progression: five years of experience versus one year’s worth of experience five times. If a career counselor can’t answer this quickly and with confidence, I think I’d walk away from the meeting and try to find a different career counselor.
  • Career Centers With The Wrong Metrics — I sat down with the academic dean in charge of hiring for a career center to make my pitch about becoming the director and I had barely said the word, “Stanford” when I was met with a wall of defensiveness… “We’re not Stanford, you can’t compare us to Stanford!” I hadn’t even made my point, which was on metrics, before the defensive barrier was raised.
  • Stanford’s students are hired at a whopping 97% rate.
  • That’s impressive, but what does that even mean? The number of hires, the number of internships, the caliber and prestige of organizations pulling from your student population is important, yes, but it says nothing about helping students prepare for their careers. Getting people hired is the easy part. Getting people into jobs that actually set them on the right course for their careers is a totally different challenge with a completely different set of metrics. I had lunch with a former student the other day and he said,

“I had a job lined-up and then I took your class and found the job I’m in now. I shudder to think about what my life might have been like had I stuck with the job I had.”

Many universities out there are already adapting and moving forward on these solutions and starting to put the student and their development first. I think in the next decade universities will completely transform to be more student centered and become really great developers of professionals and people. That’s my wish anyway.

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