We don’t need bigger buckets. We need better tools.

Photo adapted from Quinn Dombrowski's "Students - wake up"

I always get uncomfortable when politicians or investors promise a blank check. Without boundaries, there isn’t a path to steer a project or deadline to hold it accountable. When the blank checks stop coming, the organization is often thrown into panic mode because they have grown accustomed to a high standard of operating, and doing anything less is uncomfortable. Blinded by pride, the people at the top believe their program or product is perfect as is because it offers a solution to a delicate problem. They think: “If you don’t like my solution, you don’t care about fixing the problem.” And: “If people don’t like my solution, there’s a problem with the customer. The problem is public opinion. It’s politicians… the news… the media… technology… young people…”

Instead of fixing their product or program, they use what’s left of the blank check to build bigger buckets. The bigger the bucket, the more water will be taken out of the sinking program, ultimately delaying the inevitable.

Right now, the sinking program is higher education. To be clear, higher education isn’t sinking because it’s “bad,” it’s sinking because how we work is changing, and education can’t keep up with the demands of industry and culture. There is a crack in the side of the higher-education boat and it’s been taking on water for some time. The crack is getting bigger and bigger, so the buckets are getting bigger and bigger. We’re up to our waist in water and the buckets have gotten too heavy to hold. The public is starting to lose faith in the system, the administrators, and the university presidents, leaving the people at the top confused and defensive. In an article published this week in POLITICO, university presidents say they’ve been blindsided.

“POLITICO talked to more than a dozen college and university presidents, from small colleges to Ivy League universities and top public institutions, who expressed fear that they’re losing public and political support at an alarming rate.”

This isn’t political in the sense of Democratic vs. Republican vs. independent. It’s political in that we need the right type of education for each student, and if tax money is being used, it shouldn’t be used on bigger buckets—it should be used on developing the proper tools to fix the leaks. 

“…complaints about the role of universities in American society have come from both sides of the political spectrum. Republicans and Democrats alike have blasted rapidly rising tuition costs, which have rendered even some public universities unaffordable to many students. Liberals have expressed alarm at the extent to which top universities cater to the wealthy — pointing to a highly cited study this year showing that some universities are enrolling more students from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent combined.
One poll found as many as 58 percent of Republicans say colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in the country. Less than half of households making less than $75,000 a year who identify as Democrats have confidence in higher education, according to another.”

 

Funding a Bigger Bucket vs. Fixing the Leak

When time and money is spent fixing the symptoms and not the problem itself, the symptoms are often confused with the problem.

Symptoms of a failing program:

  • Loss of funding
  • Loss of community support
  • Loss of political support
  • Drop in attendance
  • Increase in critical media

Bigger Bucket “Solutions”:

  • Begging donors for more funding
  • Events to rally community support
  • Turning an organizational problem into a political problem
  • Lowering the cost of entry (lowering standards)
  • Tit-for-tat essays written by program leaders where they express how they have been victimized

VS.

Finding the Leak:

Fixing the Leak:

  • A major 3rd party audit of state and federally funded programs to ensure taxpayer money is being put to a good use.
  • Diversify education to encourage hands-on, in-the-field workshops so businesses can work with students who are training for a career in their industry. Students should spend less time behind a desk in front of a professor and more time working alongside a mentor or journey-level worker.
  • What worked in the past doesn’t always work in the present, especially with the advancement of technology. Education is available to anyone with access to the internet (if you have access to a library, you can access the internet). A validation system (like badging) could be developed to credit those with existing experience or knowledge. Since a 4-year degree doesn’t hold as much weight as it used to, the badging or certificate system could be used to verify a student or employee’s skills. Those skills could go into a database that would be accessed by hiring managers looking for workers with a specific skillset.
  • If companies don’t need more employees who have a 4-year degree, identify what skills they do need and course-correct technical schools and community colleges to prepare students for a career, not a 4-year university.  

If higher education does not change on its own, Industry will be forced to self-correct. In this case, I see Industries creating their own educational system to meet their changing (agile) needs. After high school, students will attend corporate universities: Amazon University to learn supply chain management, Microsoft University for machine learning, Target for marketing strategy, Ford University for automotive engineering, Latham & Watkins Law School, Google school of business, and so on.


Afterthought

Education is a sensitive subject. There are some who get defensive when alternative methods of education are suggested. Those who are critical of higher education are usually not advocating for less education — they are concerned because some populations are not receiving the education they need to thrive. Right now, those earning bachelor’s degrees are not ready to work jobs post-college because of systemic failures in higher education. We need to hold higher education accountable for preparing students for work, and campuses should be a marketplace of ideas that encourage safe discourse. People who suggest alternative forms of education (like myself) are often concerned about the future of the workforce and want to ally with existing programs to make them better for all.

 

 

Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and the workplace. He can be reached at Andrew.wilt@sustainableevolution.com and andrewjwilt.com