Last month my wife, Andrea (Andi) Simon, was a keynote speaker at the Michigan Colleges Alliance (MCA) annual meeting. The Alliance is made up of 15 independent Michigan colleges, and if put together as a singular entity, these colleges would be the third largest post-secondary institution in Michigan, just behind the University of Michigan and Michigan State University. Consequently, they have a significant impact on the students they serve!
Taking place over several days, the conference had representatives from approximately 100 corporations in attendance, including the large automotive companies. Andi was the keynote speaker at one of the dinner meetings, and her lecture included an in-depth introduction to Blue Ocean Strategy,® which is the focal point of her newly released book, “On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights.”
Two days later, Andi led a MCA roundtable on Blue Ocean Strategy, examining the need to make colleges more relevant in today’s economy. With that in mind, I would like to talk about this topic in this blog.
Does college still make sense today?
Perhaps yes but also perhaps no! With tuition fees increasing exponentially year after year, how do you quantify return on investment for a college education? As an answer, I would like to offer these six points, some picked up from the conference, some from colleagues and some from the media.
- College debt is dragging down the GNP. Both of this election year’s two Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination understood that the cost of a college education and the debt associated with it raise serious issues about the return on investment. Today’s students are burdened with enormous debt which many of them will carry with them for most of their adult lives. The economic fallout of this, for both these individuals and the U.S. economy long-term, is substantial, affecting their ability to purchase a home, make investments or finance a decent lifestyle, all of which negatively impact the GNP. Consequently, part of the Democratic campaign platform calls for free public education for students whose families earn less than $125,000 a year.
- There has been much talk about increasing the minimum wage, but minimum wage jobs are not what people aspire to. So the question becomes, what about creating better-paying jobs? And do colleges teach what is required for these jobs or is there a mismatch between what colleges are teaching and what industry needs? Obviously, there’s a mismatch. Case in point: the Chief Talent Officer of General Motors attended the aforementioned conference and bemoaned the fact that there are a number of potentially high-paying jobs that go unfilled each year because America’s workforce doesn’t have the skillset to fill them. This is true not only for GM technology jobs but also for vocational skilled-labor jobs such as welders, electricians and plumbers.
- What is the value of a classical liberal arts education? Tough question. For me, this academic field was critically important but I grew up in an age where STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was not what a person needed to get ahead. Plus, I knew I would be going to a trade school (graduate business school) after I received my BA. But what about today? First, student debt has become astronomical (as I mentioned) and a number of graduates can’t afford graduate school. So even if a liberal arts education is important, don’t liberal arts colleges have some responsibility to prepare graduates for something beyond a minimum-paying job?
- What does this “colleges’ responsibility to their students” really mean? I guess it means that for a number of colleges, they must start doing things differently than before. It means figuring out how to prepare students for the real world. It means teaching differently than they did 30 years ago because today’s students come to college with different skill sets and different ways of learning (active learning) than 30 years ago. They have grown up in the digital age and therefore need to be taught in a way that exploits and capitalizes on “today’s skills.”
- Industry also has a responsibility to look at the gap between skills and needs. Industry can’t just say kids don’t have the skills! They have some degree of responsibility in all of this. A recent July 6, 2016 NY Times article entitled “Job Training Works. So Why Not Do More?” describes a very successful “women in technology” program for low-income workers in information technology. Employers are closely involved so that it is truly a partnership. Shouldn’t (or can’t) this type of program be implemented on a large scale at colleges?
- Graduate business school rankings list graduating job salaries as an important factor in ranking. Should we consider some type of similar metric in undergraduate college rankings? Perhaps the number or percentage of students enrolled in an internship program? Or percentage of students employed upon graduation? I don’t know but I think some type of metric is absolutely crucial.
So what does all this mean?
On the one hand, we have students who graduate from college with limited skills. This results in real difficulty in entering the workplace, at least beyond the minimum wage. Yet their debt is the same as graduates who do have the skills necessary for employment and who are placed in jobs earning much higher levels. And the consequences of high debt and low wages are a no-brainer.
On the other hand, we are starting to see very productive internship programs that are geared to the less fortunate underclass who don’t have the benefit of a post-secondary education.
Given the current American educational situation, it would seem to me that college educators need to think about embracing these types of internship programs and building them into their bank of resources so that their students, upon graduation, can fill the plethora of job openings in the technology field that are sadly, at the moment are going empty.
Better yet, rather than thinking about this, colleges need to act, and soon. Our students, and the economy, can’t wait.
Want to dig deeper? Read our blogs on higher ed.
We do a lot of work with colleges on innovation and change, helping them realign their business models and adopt Blue Ocean Strategies® to achieve measurable growth. We've written several blogs on the subject and invite you to read them. (Just click the red bar below.) Let us know if they sparked some ideas that maybe you can apply to your own organization. We'd love to hear from you!
Andy Simon, Partner
Simon Associates Management Consultants