In a classic episode of The Simpsons, Homer changes his name to “Max Power” and declares to Bart and Lisa, “Kids, there’s three ways to do things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way!” Bart asks, “Isn’t that the wrong way?” And Homer replies, “Yeah, but faster!”
The belief that using the Internet to teach the same old college material will magically fix higher education is the equivalent of believing in the Max Power way — “Let’s keep doing education wrong, but faster!”
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Heavyweights Peter Thiel and Vivek Wadhwa are still debating the importance of college for young people, with Thiel encouraging youngsters to drop out and Wadhwa insisting the successful college dropout entrepreneur is a myth. But the underlying flaw of higher education has largely been ignored. And until this problem is addressed, adding a layer of technology simply streamlines the delivery of a flawed product.
College has two customers, the students and the labor market (employers). For the vast majority of students, the number one reason for attending college is to improve their career prospects. While top schools such as Stanford and Harvard still succeed in serving this purpose, the ability of schools to deliver a better career drops precipitously when you move off the uppermost tier.
When college evolved from the “ivory tower” model that was designed for the upper crust of society, it failed to adapt to the needs of the populace who are less interested in intellectual conversation and more interested in getting a job.
Today we have hundreds of thousands of students spending several years and tens of thousands of dollars they can’t afford graduating from low-tier and mid-tier schools, but those institutions actually do little to help their alumni’s prospects.
For example, many years ago, I was on a porn set (I was not performing) and struck up a conversation with one of the actresses (I lead an interesting life). I was somewhat horrified but not entirely surprised to find out that she had graduated from the same university and with the exact same degree that I had. Clearly, our college had grossly failed to improve either of our careers.
For students, this inability to deliver significantly better income after graduation can only be seen as a complete failure. Customer Number One has not been well served.
The second group of customers that colleges must serve has essentially the same goal as the students. Employers want to hire qualified people as much as graduates want those jobs.
But instead of producing graduates with the skills employers need, the American college model tends toward encouraging an almost random education that has little bearing on the demands of the labor market. This disconnect has resulted in a credibility gap between what a degree is supposed to provide and what employers feel it’s actually worth.
Simply applying technology to this system or offering unaccredited classes online isn’t enough. It is imperative that any alternative to the current structure earn the trust and respect of employers.
This is where online learning typically falls short. While it may be cheaper and faster than a regular university, private employers often give even less credit to the value of these credentials.
Meanwhile, four-year colleges continue to believe that their role is to grant seemingly generic degrees that most companies couldn’t care less about while they teach curricula that are often designed in total isolation from employer feedback.
This misalignment has resulted in thousands of well paying jobs going unfulfilled and talent wars over qualified workers — and all the while, colleges are cranking out a labor force with few applicable skills. Clearly, Customer Number Two has also not been well served.
Until universities put the needs of their customers above their dogmatic devotion to what constitutes a “proper” education, no amount of technological streamlining or making classes available online will significantly improve the shortcomings of our current system.
And any technology that doesn’t address these core failings will provide only marginal improvement, perhaps making things a bit cheaper but not much more effective. Any proper disruption of higher education would involve changing these entrenched beliefs and implementing a system that focuses on colleges’ true customers by giving students and employers the results that they want: credibility in the labor market.
Solutions that don’t address this by earning the respect of employers are mostly doing things the “Max Power way” — delivering the wrong education faster.
Francisco Dao is the founder of 50Kings, a private community for technology and media innovators. He is a former leadership columnist for Inc.com, a lifelong entrepreneur, author and former stand-up comic.
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