A Matter of Time

There’s been a lot of consternation lately about the cost of higher education, skyrocketing student loans and the unfortunate masses of recent grads who only seem to be finding unemployment and financial dependency.  The complexity of the entire situation is sufficient to have me writing non-stop for years to come.  Everyone has their own opinion and only a small subset have bothered to try and provide a solution.  A recent article on Inside Higher Ed, normally a good source of opinion in the higher ed space, caught my attention.  It was written by the President of Drake University, David Maxwell.

The basic premise of the article is that college administrators need to play a good offensive attack in order to defend themselves against the negative onslaught brought upon them by the media with respect to college affordability, student outcomes and the true value of a college, specifically, liberal arts, degree.  Administrators need to re-shape the argument about college being excessively expensive and “making an increasingly broad sector of the public suspicious of our relevance, quality and integrity.”

Maxwell then calls for his colleagues to “find ways to collectively guide the national discourse back to a position of truth — of fact-based information that is relevant to the needs and aspirations of prospective students and their families — and then ensure that our institutions communicate our individual values, strengths and demonstrable outcomes in the context of an accurate and nuanced narrative.”

YES! FINALLY!  Someone wants to bring fact-based information to the table to help the families and students find the best, most effective schools that enable the best outcomes.  I can’t believe a school administrator has said something like this.  In print, no less.  For people to see!  No hiding from it now, Mr. Maxwell.

I’ll be honest, at this point in the article, I could barely contain myself.  I’m envisioning a series of articulate, fact-based (his words, not mine!) data that can be used to help people better understand the problems of college affordability and make their own value-judgements.  He even calls out his peers, stating, “I am implicitly challenging us — the higher education community — to do something that historically we haven’t been very good at: to explain ‘what it is that we do, how we do it, why we do it this way, and how we know that we’re doing it well’ in ways that make any sense at all to people who aren’t us.”

This guy has balls…or does he?

Mr. Maxwell then goes on to lay out his primary “offensive” arguments that should be used to combat this negative wave of public sentiment.  The arguments include:

  1. Identify and emphasize the skills that employers want and the ways in which our graduates are prepared to fill those needs
  2. Encourage students to focus on passion, not expectations of income
  3. Shift the discussion from expensive sticker prices to net cost

Now each of these arguments achieve none of his previously stated goals of “fact-based information.”  His support of each is riddled with subjective, assumption-laced information and catch-phrases.  In fact, they get progressively less fact based!  My primary objection is that all three points are applicable to a small portion of the population who are fortunate to attend an expensive private university, such as the one that Mr. Maxwell presides over.  Not only that, but his talking points don’t address any of fundamental underlying issues facing the higher education system.  All each argument does is attempt to deflect a portion of the current criticism that universities currently face.  Some solution.

In identifying skills that employers want, Mr. Maxwell focuses on communication, teamwork, problem solving and other soft-skills.  Indeed, if you are a student at a top 50 school, employers will look at you as a well-rounded candidate with general intelligence who they will be able to develop into the employee they want.  That doesn’t apply to most college students in today’s environment.  Princeton, yes.  Bunker Hill Community College, unfortunately, no.  Tangible skills are necessary.  Tangible job-based skills and experience are ideal.

As for the second point, it is just fine to focus students on “passion” instead of “income” in cases.  Most of those cases involve the student being in the fortunate position of not incurring extensive debt and trying to establish themselves financially.  The reality is that this generation has been told since they were young to pursue their passion.  Passion does not pay bills or help you move out of the basement of your parent’s house.

The third point is putrid.  Yes, net costs is important.  Again, the top 50 schools who are leading the arms race have the coffers to provide ample financial aid packages, but most don’t.  In addition, the “total cost” of the school is being incurred somewhere.  Normally it’s the government.  Thinking like this will leave the higher education wide-open for a low-end disruption that provides a “good enough” solution to the problem of job training and credentialing that is most commonly associated with college degrees in today’s job market, but at a fraction of the cost.

Mr. Maxwell started out with so much promise, but ultimately failed to show a true willingness to engage in the “hard discussions” and provide “fact-based information” that is necessary to examine such a complex industry.  Few other industries have such societal value, associated behavioral psychology (i.e. the ‘American Dream’ of getting a degree and upping your lot in life) and long-standing institutions as higher education – making this transition very jarring and difficult to fully grasp.

However, as long as administrators continue to deflect these issues, there will continue to be problems.  Like most other markets, the internet and technology are starting to get traction and find business models in the higher education space.  Like newspapers and the music industry before them, the higher education industry will realize quickly how devastating tech-enabled industry disruption can be.  It’s only a matter of time.


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