The Quest for the Golden Compass

Of the major problems plaguing the US and the world currently, I have found the education to employment chasm the hardest to comprehend. Climate change is depressing. But it is clear how the invisibility and delay of costs lead to disincentives for action in the present. Glacial health reform is aggravating, but it is clear why those who are deeply vested in the current pay-for-service model fiercely resist change.

In contrast, all parties involved in the education to employment gap should have strong incentives to urgently find solutions. Both graduates and employers bear significant and immediate costs from not finding a match. Additional costs of solutions should not be much more than what students are already shelling out for higher education (indeed they should cost less in many instances) or employers lost productivity and internal remedial training. And while higher education institutions may not have an intrinsic incentive to contribute to a solution (a reality they frequently remind us in their defenses of their inaction), they should receive sufficient pressure from their two customers – families and the government – who do.

For a relatively new observer of the problem like myself, the only conclusion is that there must be deeper and more convoluted problems than meet the eye. That there is a hidden labyrinth at the heart of the issue that can only be unraveled through political and operational wizardry – a golden compass to guide through the wilds of education to the promised land of employment – rather than the basic coordination it seems should suffice.

The Hechinger Report has been running a special series on higher education and employment that sheds some light on this mystery. Here is a brief summary of and my reaction to some the most interesting articles in the series to date:


Student advising plays key role in college success — just as it’s being cut

Summary – Advisors are an important but endangered species. The one advisor for 367 students (or 1 in more than 1,000 in community colleges) can reduce drop-out rates. Technology can make advising more efficient and effective.

Sabot – Number of advisors shouldn’t be the issue – it should be about outcomes and quality. Its good to see innovation in this key function, but how many colleges are tracking data like those from Arizona State (increase in graduation rate from 26% to 42%, though doubtful that can be causally linked to advisory model) versus just seeing advising as an easy place to cut costs.


As grads seek jobs, universities cut career services

Summary – Facing pressure to improve relevance and student employment, universities are cutting already anemic career services (budgets down 16% nationally). In larger universities, there is one brave career counselor for every 5,876 students.

Sabot – Even the success outlier in this story is appalling. Wake Forest has a revamped career center – paid for by millions in additional donations from parents and alumni. The message: we can’t be bothered to devote the fortune you pay us to career services – if you want your child to be employable, you have to cough up more. A request like this should prompt angry campaigns to reallocate admissions and the very fundraising staff who wrote the letter to career services (and perhaps a rude gesture), not a check. Such donations are accomplice to mismanagement, not philanthropy.


Impatient employers step in to educate prospective workers

Summary – Clearly mapping out what students need to do to complete a degree and get a job rather than letting them randomly take classes leads to higher rates of, well, earning degrees and securing jobs. The conclusion: “All the data says the same thing: If you know where you’re going, you’re more likely to get there.” – Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Sabot – This is our golden compass? I am a huge believer in evidenced-based decision-making. But we needed extensive research to reach a revelation that showing students what they need to do to reach their goal will help them do it? If this is indeed a large part of the answer, the 3.7 million jobs vacant in the US and the millions more around the world are a shame on all of us, and education institutions in particular.


There are more articles in the series, which I hope to blog about shortly. Most of all,  I paradoxically hope that they reveal that the solutions are more difficult than they seem, but that they are can now be quickly rolled out regardless of the cause of our collective failure to date.

Weirdos in the workplace

Matthew Yglesias writes:

A summer intern who’s just finished up her third year at Yale doesn’t have any kind of particular credentials, but we know that she probably has very good SAT scores and sounds like an exceedingly normal person. A young woman who got a 1600 on her SATs and has been spending the past three years working at 7-11 and watching Open Yale Courses videos sounds like a huge weirdo.

And employers seem to genuinely value that “you’re not a weirdo” factor.

Probably true, though I wonder if signaling is more important for less technical and outward facing fields. Design and software engineering are full of successful weirdos.

A Free Degree in Every Pot

President Obama is not the only politician that has been using the bully pulpit to promise reform of higher education. As the first major Kenyan election since the infamous 2007 sectarian violence approaches its climax, the two leading candidates have made bold promises to expand public post-secondary programs.

Many of the specifics from both candidates are undoubtedly hollow hyperbole that will be quickly recalibrated once the ballots are closed. Spending on higher education as a proportion of per capita GDP in Kenya and many sub-Saharan African countries is already among the highest in the world and the new President will find it difficult to find the additional money required to meet these promises amid many other costly campaign promises. But these promises do provide a number of insights about the current state and future direction of higher education in the country.

First, the mere fact that higher education is a relatively prominent plank in national election platforms reflects growing pressure from the middle class on the issue. Although radical reform is unlikely, the pressure from tens of thousands of students who are struggling to find quality, affordable spaces in universities every year (the article cites 76k who could not access public institutions, and that is just those who technically qualified for university) and their families will continue to force some change.

Second, the solutions offered by the candidate are largely driven by the public sector, highlighting a reported bias in Kenya towards public higher education. However, a few measures to increase the role of the private sector have been slipped in, hopefully a glimpse of a deeper pragmatism about the prospects of the government both financing and operating enough quality supply to meet exploding demand from students. The specific measures (incentives for businesses to sponsor student fees) are likely to be grossly insufficient so the true test will come in how the government reacts as private providers step forward to play a much larger role in providing and financing (i.e., loans) in the coming years.

Lastly, the pledges are focused on affordability and access – quality is conspicuously absent. This follows the trend we have seen in the US and other countries where the political imperative to increase access to higher education drives rapid expansion of supply with only superficial attention to quality. If Kenya continues down this path, it is only postponing the pain since those same tens of thousands of young people will have degrees but no skills or jobs.

An ideal vision for the future of Kenya’s higher education would both set out ambitious paths for increased access and recognize that traditional models are unable to deliver the quality that the country needs at the prices it can afford. Calling for that required innovation may not win votes among the existing university staff who have already taken to the streets, but it will provide the better future for which young people and their families are clamoring. Regardless of the politicians’ rhetoric, we are optimistic that these innovations will quickly take root in Kenya, following in the footsteps of the country’s dynamism in technology and other sectors. There is little doubt that Kenya’s higher education will undergo fascinating evolution over the next decade – watch this space.



Fred Wilson on MOOC v blended v traditional

Check it out — his middle funnel is meant to represent a Kepler-like blended model. Love that Fred is helping to evangelize for high-quality, lower-cost blended models.

We think you can achieve outcomes nearly as good as traditional by moving moderately right of center in his framework. As you start to move from center to right, quality increases more quickly than cost at first — but as you get closer to the far right, cost starts to increase more quickly than quality. We’re going to experiment with lots of different points in the middle to try to find the optimum.

Canaries in the coal mine

This week we brought on a new team member.  Sherryl is from the Philippines and came to us through oDesk, a website that helps teams find talent globally.  We’re working with Sherryl on researching disruptive models in higher education, but really she’s a pretty great example of this disruption in action.  The quality of work that folks like Sherryl produce is quickly closing in on what a US college graduate can deliver, and she’s doing it remotely from a country with living expenses dramatically below what we’d pay for in Boston.  But perhaps even more significantly, Sherryl comes to us without the burden of debt that forces most US college grads to seek much higher wages.

The increasing ability for employers to globally arbitrage labor puts an expiration date on our current paradigm for higher education.  I know, I know, we should change the name of this blog to “Collected Summaries and Commentary on University Ventures Letters”, but I love Ryan Craig’s post today on Law School, particularly:

When you add the microeconomics of law school to the macroeconomic changes to the legal profession (i.e., the rise of offshoring and online self-help legal services), the headlines over the past few months are entirely predictable: 45% of recent graduates unable to find a job that actually requires a J.D. degree; average debt of private law school graduates of $125,000; unemployed graduates suing their schools over misleading placement data; two successive years of 20% declines in applications; and a sense of crisis among law schools and the bar associations and state courts that oversee them. In 2004, 100,000 students applied to law school. This year, the number will be close to 50,000.

The Atlantic writes about the same trends for PhDs – less jobs:

PhD Employment

And less money for those who stay in academia:

PhD Salaries


But as Craig writes (and as I’m sure Sherryl will tell you) these high-cost advanced degrees are just the canary in the coal mine.  As the story about outsourcing plays out more broadly across knowledge work it’s only a matter of time before undergraduate educators face the same economic reality.

The solutions Craig describes coming out of the legal education world are very closely aligned with our thinking.  He describes two paths that law schools are considering – either developing a lower cost technical degree laser-focused on employment, or shortening and streamlining their expensive offerings.  We think there is room for both ideas as we rethink an undergraduate degree under extreme cost pressure: we’re designing a degree that trims as much cost as possible from the professor and infrastructure-heavy model of higher ed, while tightly tying everything we do to employability and market realities.

We just hope the US higher education industry can move quickly enough to keep up with Sherryl.

A university opens its kimono

Most universities fill their website’s “about us” section with high-minded marketing speak to woo prospective students. I’m not sure if that’s what the University of Burundi is trying to do with their’s, but you certainly can’t fault their honesty:

Our Challenges

  • Lack of teachers in almost all areas, particularly in the fields of science and technology (research low);
  • The lack of teaching materials and laboratory;
  • Supervision of students (headcount exceeding capacities);
  • The modernization of the management of student flows (Internet networks, etc.);
  • Access to ICT and training of staff to these technologies.

This is, of course, not their fault. That same list could apply to most universities around the world. The question is whether there’s some conceivable amount of money that could get them over these obstacles while still making university affordable in local terms, or if it’s time for a different model altogether.