Tag Archives: Seth Godin
For 400 years, higher education in the US has been on a roll. From Harvard asking Galileo to be a guest professor in the 1600s to millions tuning in to watch a team of unpaid athletes play another team of unpaid athletes in some college sporting event, the amount of time and money and prestige in the college world has been climbing.
I’m afraid that’s about to crash and burn. Here’s how I’m looking at it.
1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.
Pick up any college brochure or catalog. Delete the brand names and the map. Can you tell which school it is? While there are outliers (like St. Johns, Deep Springs or Full Sail) most schools aren’t really outliers. They are mass marketers.
Stop for a second and consider the impact of that choice. By emphasizing mass and sameness and rankings, colleges have changed their mission.
This works great in an industrial economy where we can’t churn out standardized students fast enough and where the demand is huge because the premium earned by a college grad dwarfs the cost. But…
As a result, there are millions of people in very serious debt, debt so big it might take decades to repay. Word gets around. Won’t get fooled again…
This leads to a crop of potential college students that can (and will) no longer just blindly go to the ‘best’ school they get in to.
3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.
Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I’ve ever seen. Why do it?
Biggest reason: So the schools can reject more applicants. The more applicants they reject, the higher they rank in US News and other rankings. And thus the rush to game the rankings continues, which is a sign that the marketers in question (the colleges) are getting desperate for more than their fair share. Why bother making your education more useful if you can more easily make it appear to be more useful?
4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.
College wasn’t originally designed to merely be a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that’s what it has become. The data I’m seeing shows that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness.
5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.
A lot of these ills are the result of uniform accreditation programs that have pushed high-cost, low-reward policies on institutions and rewarded schools that churn out young wanna-be professors instead of experiences that turn out leaders and problem-solvers.
Just as we’re watching the disintegration of old-school marketers with mass market products, I think we’re about to see significant cracks in old-school schools with mass market degrees.
Back before the digital revolution, access to information was an issue. The size of the library mattered. One reason to go to college was to get access. Today, that access is worth a lot less. The valuable things people take away from college are interactions with great minds (usually professors who actually teach and actually care) and non-class activities that shape them as people. The question I’d ask: is the money that mass-marketing colleges are spending on marketing themselves and scaling themselves well spent? Are they organizing for changing lives or for ranking high? Does NYU have to get so much bigger? Why?
The solutions are obvious… there are tons of ways to get a cheap, liberal education, one that exposes you to the world, permits you to have significant interactions with people who matter and to learn to make a difference. Most of these ways, though, aren’t heavily marketed nor do they involve going to a tradition-steeped two-hundred-year old institution with a wrestling team. Things like gap years, research internships and entrepreneurial or social ventures after high school are opening doors for students who are eager to discover the new.
The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.
It’s absurd to look at a three year old toddler and say, “this kid can’t read or do math or even string together a coherent paragraph. He’s a dolt and he’s never going to amount to anything.” No, we don’t say that because we know we can teach and motivate and cajole the typical kid to be able to do all of these things.
Why is it okay, then, to look at a teenager and say, “this kid will never be a leader, never run a significant organization, never save a life, never inspire or create…”
Just because it’s difficult to grade doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught.
Never mind a teenager. I think it’s wrong to say that about someone who’s fifty.
Isn’t it absurd to focus so much energy on ‘practical’ skills that prep someone for a life of following instructions but relentlessly avoid the difficult work necessary to push someone to reinvent themselves into becoming someone who makes a difference?
And isn’t it even worse to write off a person or an organization merely because of what they are instead of what they might become?
The chances of a high school student eventually becoming first violin for the Boston Philharmonic: one in a million.
The chances of a high school student eventually playing basketball in the NBA? About the same.
In fact, the chances of someone growing up and getting a job precisely like yours, whatever it is, are similarly slim. (Head of development at an ad agency, director of admissions for a great college… you get the idea). Every good gig is a long shot, but in the end, a lot of talented people get good gigs. The odds of being happy and productive and well compensated aren’t one in a million at all, because there are many good gigs down the road. The odds are only slim if you pick precisely one job.
Here’s the lesson: the ardent or insane pursuit of a particular goal is a good idea if the steps you take along the way also prep you for other outcomes, each almost as good (or better). If pushing through the Dip and bending the market to your will and shipping on time and doing important and scary work are all things you need to develop along the way, then it doesn’t really matter so much if you don’t make the goal you set out to reach.
On the other hand, if you live a life of privation and spend serious time and money on a dead end path with only one outcome, you’ve described a path likely to leave you broken and bitter. Does spending your teenage years (and your twenties) in a room practicing the violin teach you anything about being a violin teacher or a concert promoter or some other job associated with music? If your happiness depends on your draft pick or a single audition, that’s giving way too much power to someone else.
If you have a teacher (of any sort) that you cannot please, that you cannot learn from, that is unwilling to take you where you need to go because he is defending the status quo and demonstrates your failure on whatever report card he chooses to use, you could consider yourself a failure. Or you could remind yourself…
- Grades are an illusion
- Your passion and insight are reality
- Your work is worth more than mere congruence to an answer key
- Persistence in the face of a skeptical authority figure is a powerful ability
- Fitting in is a short-term strategy, standing out pays off in the long run
- If you care enough about the work to be criticized, you’ve learned enough for today