Why Do Kids Go to College?

In graduate school, I had a particularly curmudgeonly professor who claimed that college was simply post-adolescent day care, and that parents paid tuition and other fees just to get their kids out of their hair for four years until they grew up and were able to support themselves. He saw the parties, sports, Greek life, and everything that went with it as a way for kids to blow off steam in a relatively safe and supervised environment. When I thought back on some of my college escapades, I saw his point.

In her MOOC about the future of higher education, Cathy Davidson suggested that modern higher education, which in the US was largely developed in the 19th century, evolved to train workers for the new industrial age. In her words, to “turn farmers into factory workers and shopkeepers into corporate workers.” She believes that the educational focus on timeliness, standardization, productivity, and segmentation of knowledge were the direct result of the shift to an industrial society. When I think back to the rigidity and rote memorization that characterized much of my education, I see her point as well.

But these are society-level views, and not much use to a college president. She needs to know what makes a given student pick a given school, preferably HER school. There are various rules of thumb for this – a kid will go where his friends go. A kid will go to the highest ranked school she gets into. A kid goes to the school that makes the best first impression when he comes for an initial visit. These things may or may not be true, but again we can clarify the discussion by adopting the view that higher education is an industry, and using the tools of strategic management.

In the view of a strategist, the student (and their parents) are consumers of a product (their education), and they choose which product to buy based on the one that solves a burning problem for them. The trick is to find out what the problem is. It is even trickier because the consumer themselves might not know that they have a problem until they are presented with a solution.

It is easy for faculty and administrators to confuse the burning problems that our students (and their parents) have with what we think students (and their parents) OUGHT to be worried about. We take it as an article of faith that students need a broad-based liberal arts education, to develop critical thinking skills, to become refined, well rounded, and civilized. We might also agree that students need job skills and career counseling to make them employable upon graduation. And who could argue with those things? That is the received wisdom we were taught growing up, and universities in the US have operated based on those assumptions since the 19th century.

The problem with these assumptions is that students face very different landscape than they did in previous generations. Think about the one of my favorite movies, Animal House. The white male students at the Delta House fraternity spent almost no time studying, as it interfered with their partying and attempts to get laid. They changed majors arbitrarily. They antagonized the dean so much that they finally got expelled from school. They reacted this news by causing a riot and committing wanton acts of destruction and any number of felonies. Yet the montage at the end of the movie showed that most of them eventually graduated and entered into successful, lucrative, and respected careers. Yes, it’s a spoof, but one of the reasons it’s so funny is that it’s a pretty accurate reflection of college students’ assumptions in the 20th century. Somewhere in the 1970’s or 1980’s, the landscape started to change. Now most students have no expectation, and little hope, of finding a respectable middle class job at graduation. 60% of adults in their 20s and early 30s receive financial support from their parents. 20% of them live at home. 45% have outstanding student loans averaging $20,000. Half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or stuck in low-wage service industry McJobs. Their lives are very different than the denizens of Delta House.

This is the elephant in the room when it comes to college decisions. It is the fundamental problem that students (and their parents) face today, and I would argue that most universities, while paying lip service to internships, career counseling, and experiential education, are not fundamentally addressing it. Most students today and in the future will not have the luxury of attending a four-year country club on their parent’s dime at $60,000/year (And rising. After a few years of slow growth, tuition is rising faster than inflation again). They are going to have to work their way through school, or delay going to school and perhaps return later to complete their degree. Schools are going to have to find a way to be both flexible and affordable. This will involve the use of (gasp) technology, not to “disrupt” higher education, but to enhance and modernize it.

The traditional liberal arts are excellent and highly useful, but are no longer sufficient to develop broadly educated students. Students need to truly understand the technologies that shape their world and how they interact with it. They are also going to have to learn to think entrepreneurially (by which I mean using creativity and innovation to solve problems) so that they can address the societal challenges that they face and have the tools to forge their own careers rather than depending on large organizations to do it for them. Schools are going to have to radically rethink their general education requirements to ensure that students are learning the fundamental things they need to thrive in the 21st century.

Students are going to need to develop real skills, as most employers no longer provide fundamental training to their new employees. They are going to need credentials and certifications that qualify them for well paying jobs. They are going to need programs that are tied to industry, so that they flow seamlessly from the classroom, to internships, and finally to employment (the way law school used to work). Schools are going to have to provide a much stronger bridge between theory and practice than they have in the past.

Once universities move past trying to solve the problems of a 19th or 20th century student, they will recognize the burning pain the young adults have right now – the fear that they are not going to be able to support themselves, live independently, and make a contribution to society. Addressing that customer problem will cause strategic universities to radically rethink what they do and how they do it.

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