A New U

Ryan Craig

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Overview of how the university system is changing (and who is changing it). Craig touched on quite a few topics (boot camps, MOOCs, apprenticeships, etc.) and gave lots of anecdotes. Might’ve worked as a long-form article, but it’s a quick read and nice to have everything consolidated in one spot.


Unfortunately, this describes nearly half of all students who undertake degree programs. America has by far the lowest rate of college completion as a percentage of students who matriculate. And adding dropouts to graduates working in jobs that don’t require a college degree yields a majority, which is proving dangerous to the social fabric of our country.

It was only after World War II—with the GI bill and massive new investments at the state (public university systems) and federal (Pell Grants and student loans) levels—that college degrees became commonplace, rising from 5 percent of adults to more than 30 percent.

Of course, if all talented and motivated students feel compelled by the social norm to go to college and earn degrees—leaving behind less talented and motivated students—it would be awfully strange if college graduates didn’t earn more. This self-selection bias gives rise to what I call the “dystopian counterfactual”: what if the many documented advantages of earning a college degree stem primarily from the talent and motivation required to complete a college degree—not to mention the family background, wealth, and support that provided the path to college—rather than from value added by a college education?

The first and most important point is that only about half of all students who enroll in four-year colleges in the United States complete a degree within six years.

Eighty-one percent of students who start at community college for the first time think they’ll eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 12 percent do.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) surveys hundreds of thousands of American college students on their attitudes toward higher education. According to NSSE, only 10 percent of students are fully engaged. Somewhere between 20 to 40 percent of students are fully disengaged. And the remainder are in the middle.

In fact, the Heritage Foundation has calculated that the average college student spends 2.76 hours per day on education-related activities but 4.4 hours per day on leisure activities “not including shopping, grooming, personal care, housework, cooking, or eating.”

Brandon lays the blame squarely at the feet of administrators focused on enrollment, retention, and the bottom line rather than ensuring students actually learn something. He has choice words for the current system, alternating between “massive scam” and “widespread fraud.”

Over the past twenty-five years, the number of administrators grew twice as fast as the number of students.

A new book by Georgetown University professor Jacques Berlinerblau, Campus Confidential: How College Works, or Doesn’t, for Professors, Parents and Students, is quoted in the New York Times as reinforcing the important point that “while teaching undergraduates is normally a very large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.”

From 2007 to 2016, homeownership by thirty year olds dropped from 32 percent to 21 percent. In 2004, 33.5 percent of twenty-three- to twenty-five-year-olds lived with parents. In 2015, it was 45 percent, posing real costs for young people as well as their parents.

American higher education has become segregated by wealth. At the top two hundred colleges, 75 percent of students come from the top income quartile and only 5 percent from the bottom quartile. Shockingly, at thirty-eight of our most selective institutions (sadly including Yale), there are more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent.

As a generation, Millennials are earning 20 percent less than Baby Boomers did at the same stage in their lives.

But in the summer of 2017, only 43 percent of sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds were working or looking for a job—down from nearly 70 percent a generation ago…Instead, students are being encouraged to study and participate in as many extracurricular activities as possible in order to burnish their college applications. Jeff Selingo noted as much in the Washington Post, quoting one expert as saying: “Upper-middle class families and above have made the determination that college admissions officers devalue paid work and that if you’re not pursuing a hectic schedule of activities you’ll be less appealing to colleges.”

The challenge of defining underemployment allows career services to hide their heads in the sand via silly employment numbers like “more than four-fifths (82 percent) of the class of 2015 bachelor’s degree graduates were employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.”30 (Sure they were employed, but doing what?)

In the 2016–17 academic year, 18 million students were enrolled in American colleges and universities. That’s 2.4 million fewer than in the fall of 2011, a 12 percent decline; 58 percent of schools have seen an enrollment decline since 2013.

It’s incorrect to generalize about a tech skills gap. For example, we don’t have a shortage of C++ or Fortran coders. The tech skills gap actually consists of thousands of microlevel or tactical technical skills gaps. These gaps are particularly obvious for entry-level positions outside the tech sector. I’m talking about jobs across all industries that use SaaS platforms to manage functions like supply chain, sales, marketing, customer service, finance, IT, and HR. So candidates who don’t have keywords like Pardot (marketing), Marketo (digital marketing), Google Adwords (digital marketing), ZenDesk Plus (customer service), NetSuite (finance), Financial Force (finance), Workday (HR), and Salesforce on their résumés are unlikely to be considered.

According to research from the Rockefeller Foundation, nearly half of all employers say it’s hard to source entry-level candidates. A more recent survey by the Society for Human Resource Management shows only one-fifth of HR professionals are fully confident in their organization’s ability to effectively assess the skills of entry-level job applicants.

Instead, EY applicants are now offered a battery of assessments to ascertain whether candidates are a good match, regardless of whether they have degrees. In 2017, the Times of London reported that EY increased the diversity of its new hires by 10 percent. Penguin Random House is doing the same. Nestlé has done so as well and found that more than 20 percent of new hires would have been immediately screened out under their prior hiring model.

This explains why a wide range of employers are following in Google and IBM’s wake, using microcredentials from providers like Credly, or e-portfolios from Portfolium, to assess candidates’ competencies in a more fine-grained manner. In a survey of four hundred employers by Hart Research Associates, 80 percent said it would be very or fairly useful to see an electronic portfolio of candidates’ work product demonstrating cognitive, noncognitive, and technical skills.

Last-mile programs are easy to categorize. There are bootcamp models where students pay tuition upfront and receive an explicit or implicit guarantee of employment. Most student-pay bootcamps show placement rates north of 80 percent into relevant, well-paid jobs. Then there are income share programs where students don’t pay anything upfront but where the last-mile program is so confident of a positive employment outcome that it takes payment as a percentage of graduates’ income for several years—typically only once students have exceeded a stated income floor. There are also apprenticeships as well as staffing and placement models, where lastmile providers can guarantee employment outcomes because students are already employees (i.e., apprentices) or because the last-mile programs hire graduates themselves (then staff them out to clients). Both apprenticeship and staffing models typically allow providers to offer the last mile for free, further enhancing the value proposition for students.

Unlike colleges and universities, last-mile programs aren’t hung up on credentials. Ask most founders of last-mile programs what credential graduates receive, and they’re blunt: “The credential is the job. That’s the credential students want.”

To the extent thought leaders focus on postsecondary education, the topic seems to be how to provide free college. It’s a sign of how isomorphic and degree-centric our thinking has become that we’re talking about “free college” as opposed to “free credentials” or better, “free pathways to good jobs.” Of course, the people doing the thinking and talking aren’t neutral observers; most attended elite colleges and believe becoming “educated” requires a comparable experience.

How prevalent are coding bootcamps? According to Course Report, although the first ones only appeared in 2012, there are now ninety-five coding schools offering programs at three hundred sites in seventy-four cities across forty states.

Across the sector, Course Report calculates a placement rate of 73 percent with median starting salary of $65,000.

Not surprisingly, Galvanize generates enough interest from prospective students that it can afford to be selective. Only about 20 percent of applicants are admitted to Galvanize programs. Nevertheless, Galvanize students have included Best Buy clerks, frozen yogurt stand workers, and a homeless candidate.

With that kind of value proposition, you’d expect a big reaction. And you’d be right. Besomebody has had eight hundred applications to date for forty slots in its three programs—a 5 percent acceptance rate. Applicants are assessed for cognitive skills and then undergo video interviews. To date, 60 percent of applicants have college degrees, but Shaikh expects the number to fall as Besomebody becomes an established faster + cheaper alternative pathway to good first jobs.

Medical Sales College (MSC) is a bootcamp that trains technical sales representatives for medical device companies, focusing on orthopedic devices relating to the spine and orthopedic reconstruction such as artificial hips and knees, arthroscopic products used in ACL or rotator cuff repairs, or plates and screws used in spinal fusions. The program runs from six to ten weeks on three campuses—Memphis, Tampa, and Austin—and provides last-mile training not only on sales and devices but also on anatomy, pathology, and biomechanics, as well as noncognitive skill training so students can be effective in a hospital environment. After all, medical device sales reps sell to a fairly sophisticated clientele: surgeons.

Last-mile programs already attract many students without college degrees. According to Course Report, about 24 percent of students enter without a bachelor’s degree.

Like GA, most last-mile providers are now considering how to shift from top-up programs to full-on college MVPs. As with the GA bridge program, the key is to add curriculum ahead of the last-mile technical training as the first stage of a comprehensive pathway to a good job.

I’m not aware of an income share program that asks for more than a 20 percent share for a handful of years (typically three or four). And all income share agreements are capped in terms of total dollars repaid. Most important, income share agreements have an income floor below which students aren’t required to pay.

While Wired calls these jobs blue collar, they don’t involve risking life or limb or even getting one’s hands dirty. So IBM has proposed a better term: “new collar.” New collar jobs are middle-skill jobs that call for advanced digital skills (which Burning Glass defines as “more sophisticated than spreadsheets or word processing, but not as specialized as programming”). These jobs are the first jobs that most college grads are trying to get, unsuccessfully in most cases.

Currently, there are only about half a million apprentices in the United States.

Research shows that apprenticeships provide students with a remarkable return on investment: students who complete apprenticeships earn nearly $250,000 more over the course of their careers than comparable students who don’t complete an apprenticeship.

Herein lies the problem. Policy makers love to talk about training welders, but few parents who attended college and work in white-collar jobs are excited about sending their child down an apprenticeship path that’s historically been blue collar, involving manual labor and union membership. But this is proving to be a false choice. Emerging digital apprenticeships provide pathways for exactly the same entry-level jobs in growing sectors of the economy as bootcamps or income share programs or even four-year colleges.

Concerns about quality may explain why none of the major employers associated with Coursera and Udacity have committed to hire or even interview graduates of these novel online programs.

What they have in common is that, unlike Coursera and Udacity, they don’t believe the value is in the online content. That’s not what the tuition’s for. Rather, the most important element of these programs is intensive real-time coaching sessions with an industry-connected mentor. Designlab provides last-mile training across a range of design professions, starting with UX design, UI design, interaction design, and branding.

What does a competency marketplace look like? If you’re a student or job-seeker, think of your LinkedIn profile shifting from a recitation of your education and experience to a long list of competencies and levels. This list may be unintelligible to you, but it won’t be unintelligible to the algorithms sitting atop the applicant tracking systems and HR information systems that employers will use to engage in competency-based hiring and predictive hiring.

Research demonstrates that work samples are more predictive of job performance than any other factor—about five times more predictive than years of education, three times more predictive than job experience, and 50 percent more effective than unstructured interviews.

Portfolium is an e-portfolio network that allows students to make their work (and the competencies demonstrated therein) visible to employers.

Credly is the market leader in microcredentialing. More than 12,000 educational institutions, employers, and industry associations issue microcredentials through Credly, including AICPA, Mozilla, IBM, and Harvard.

CodeFights founder Tigran Sloyan believes games and simulations represent the future of sourcing and filtering for any objectively measured skill. This includes fields like accounting and finance and any regulated or licensed field where there’s a qualifying exam (watch out, health care!). It also includes skills that may not be at once objectively measurable but where crowdsourcing can quickly yield an accurate judgment on performance (e.g., design).

While a degree from Harvard confers significant status benefits, Harvard has benefited from the college-going culture that thousands of nonselective institutions have fostered. Instead of occupying the apex of an obscure corner of American education, the twentieth-century evolution of college as the sole socially acceptable path to a successful career has magnified Harvard’s importance. Harvard and its selective brethren are quite happy at the top of this much larger $500 billion industry, and their presidents and trustees are equally happy as prominent spokespeople for the more prominent enterprise of higher education.

While Barnett points out that courts have noted that, in fashion, there “does not seem to be any significant problem of purchasers who mistakenly purchase fakes when intending to purchase the original,” that’s clearly no longer the case in higher education. Students who purchase degrees from nonselective institutions expecting to achieve selective-like outcomes are experiencing significant harm. So while selective institutions have heretofore resisted calling out non-selective institutions for poor student outcomes—to the point that not a single top college or university has taken a position on the many low-quality institutions that have recently closed their doors under regulatory pressure—expect this to change. Selective colleges and universities will have no choice but to begin publicly supporting meaningful accountability and outcome measures that will allow students to more readily distinguish low-quality knockoffs.

Nearly all quality faster + cheaper alternatives—and certainly those that are twelve months or less—are capable of being financed by income share agreements. Within a few years, charging tuition (and requiring students to take on debt) for any postsecondary program that’s twelve months or fewer will be viewed as a negative market signal and anachronistic. (“What? No one’s willing to back an ISA for this program? Forget it.”)

The pollster who conducted the survey of white working class voters concluded, “When these voters hear people tell them that the answer to their concerns is college, their reaction is to essentially say—don’t force your version of the American dream on me.”

While it is disturbing that those most in need of social mobility seem to have declared war on what once was America’s engine of social mobility, what’s really dangerous is that the backlash against college seems to have sideswiped something even more important, and perhaps existential. Colleges and universities have long been America’s primary source of expertise. But as higher education has become identified with elitism for a significant percentage of the population, the expertise resident in university faculty and researchers has been undermined in the minds of far too many. As a result, while college and university experts in areas like climate change, trade, and immigration are vocal and nearly unanimous with regard to certain policy positions, they’ve never had less impact than they have today and, in fact, could be causing conservative policy makers to adopt opposing positions simply because it’s “good politics”—a product of the creeping sense that higher education demarcates the line between the elite and the “real” America.

Finally, and sadly, will be the loss of fun—or all the dumb college stories I’ve subjected you to. Bootcamps and other faster + cheaper alternatives not only have less time for fun, they’re not residential. You’ll note that none of my college stories occur in class. They’re all extracurricular (and mostly extra-extracurricular).

Then there’s the University of Utah’s new “degree plus” certificates: seven- or eight-week last-mile training courses. Utah urges new graduates to “take your history degree into the creative fields of web design or digital marketing. Or discover that the interests that led you to a degree in English may also be a great match for a career in operations or project management.” All of which begs the question: why doesn’t Utah incorporate these skills into degree programs to begin with?

But in an era where students care more about jobs than academic credentials, there’s little reason for community colleges to continue to operate on an academic paradigm. Students don’t want associate degrees or even certificates. They want good first jobs. So if community colleges want to become an attractive option in a faster + cheaper world, they’ll need to reinvent themselves as placement colleges.

With the recent news that Harvard’s new class of 2021 is 29 percent legacy, coupled with a report from Politico showing that the wealth of students’ families is directly correlated to an institution’s US News ranking (driving applications and selectivity), there is a risk that selective schools will become even more exclusive. As Roger Schank has warned, faster + cheaper options may mean “that only rich people will go to college . . . Kids who want jobs will go to bootcamps.”

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