colleges

Colleges Aren’t Preparing Students for Work– What Employers Should Do

Danny Iny dropped out of school at 15 to start a business. He also got an MBA at a top business school in Canada. Guess which decision he considers the mistake?

“My own experience was that quitting school was a great choice. I had a ton of opportunities, experimented with things that I never otherwise would have been able to,” says Iny, author of “Leveraged Learning: How the Disruption of Education Helps Lifelong Learners, and Experts with Something to Teach.” “The MBA was a huge waste of time and money, and I can’t get that time or that money back.”

Research indicates that Iny’s experience isn’t as unlikely as it may seem. The prevailing wisdom that higher-education degrees — regardless of what they cost — are good investments just doesn’t hold true for many people.

So why are colleges failing to prepare workers for the workforce? We talked with Iny about what society gets wrong about higher education and what employers can — and should — do about it.

In your book you argue that colleges are really bad at teaching students the skills they need to be successful professionals. Why do you think colleges are so bad at teaching those skills?

The simple answer is that they were never supposed to be good at it. College is like nunchucks. In Japanese martial arts, there are two weapons that students learn, the sword and the nunchucks. But they’re very, very different in how they came to be. The sword was designed to be the weapon of the samurai. Nunchucks were farm implements. You used them to thresh wheat. They were repurposed into makeshift weapons because that’s what was available in an era where people were not necessarily allowed to bear arms.

You can do a lot with something that has been shoehorned into a new purpose, but there are limits when it’s used for things it wasn’t designed for. The idea of using nonvocational higher education programs as a path to becoming a skilled professional in the modern workforce, it’s a nunchuck, not a sword. It wasn’t designed for that. It can be made to work, but it will never be sword. You can sometimes be successful at hammering in a nail with your shoe, but it’s not a hammer.

So what was college originally designed to do?

The curriculum of higher education in traditional nonvocational programs is designed around subject-matter competency. If you go through an English lit program, you‘ll graduate with knowledge of that subject matter.

College used to be more akin to finishing school though. Completing a college education was a signal, a kind of shorthand. It didn’t really matter if you were studying English lit or political science because in a lot of ways, the curriculum was just a placeholder to represent the overall experience.

It’s not to say the curriculum wasn’t valuable. But take someone who went to Harvard in the ’50s. Nobody thought they were going to have a career because of all the Jane Austen novels they read. It was everything else that was part of the package. The problem is that the rest of the package isn’t functioning the way it was supposed to. And a lot of people are looking at the curriculum saying “This doesn’t prepare students for a career.” But it was never supposed to. That’s not a fair burden to place on it.

When you say that the “rest of the package” isn’t working, what do you mean?

In the U.S. there is a two-tiered educational system. There are about 200 selective colleges, meaning they accept less than 50 percent of the people who apply. These 200 schools, the Ivy League and top schools, make up less than 10 percent of overall colleges. Those are the ones where you get the brand cachet of having the name on your resume and the alumni network.

Then there’s almost everything else, the 90-plus percent of schools out there that are not selective, that will take almost anyone who applies, but that still charge a small fortune. They don’t have all those extra value-adds that contribute to lifelong success. That’s where the real travesty happens. It’s not that you pay a quarter of a million dollars for a Harvard education and it’s not worth a quarter of a million dollars. It’s when you pay a quarter of a million dollars to go to a school that nobody’s heard of and get an education that doesn’t prepare you to do much of anything.

Why can’t colleges just do a better job training students? Are they just unwilling to adapt? Or is it that they don’t understand the problem?

Large institutions have a lot of legacy and inertia around how they work and function. It’s not just about people’s expectations; there are cost structures. One of the staggering numbers is that when you enroll in college, only 21 cents on your dollar actually go to instruction. The rest goes to everything else that’s involved in keeping the college running. (That number is from Ryan Craig.)

The people in these systems also have a particular skill set, so they need either substantial retraining or institutions need new people, which is not palatable to most of the people in higher education.

But I try to be compassionate because what people are asking of higher education is an impossible thing. We’re basically saying “I want to give you a tenth as much money, but I want you to create something 10 times as valuable.” A lot of people in higher education are doing the best they can.

So is there any hope for colleges? Or has higher education as an industry already been disrupted?

Disruption is ultimately going to happen. Because along with all the general inefficiencies, there are also systemic changes happening to the way we consume education. The shift from just-in-case to just-in-time in education means that people don’t want the big four-year program loaded with pre-reqs that don’t really have anything to do with what they’re going to do. We want a very granular, focused training on the things we actually need to know at the time we need to know them.

Take, for example, the taxi industry and Uber. Taxi companies in most parts of the world were terrible. But it took a long time for a good alternative to be available. The technology had to be there. People have to catch on to the new thing. But finally you get this critical mass, and within a couple years it seems like “Who uses taxis anymore?”

Higher education is so deeply entrenched in American society and people highly fear the consequences of a bad decision when it comes to education. And yet college enrollment has declined 7 percent in the last five years. That’s more than a million and a half people saying “No, college doesn’t make sense.” And they’re doing it at a time when there isn’t a good, clear alternative.

In 10 to 15 years it’s going to be a very, very different landscape. We’re at that stage of disruption where the old solution very clearly doesn’t work and is cost-prohibitive, but there isn’t a clear, mainstream new solution — yet.

So faced with this reality, what should employers do differently when it comes to recruiting their workforce and how they see the role of degrees and training?

First, stop doing things that don’t work. It’s not just that the degree is becoming less and less of a signal; it’s already not a good signal. It’s already not predictive of how well someone will do in a job. A lot of the most progressive companies are dropping degree requirements. The Googles and Apples and Bank of Americas and PricewaterhouseCoopers, they’re not using degree requirements anymore in entry-level or nonvocational positions.

Second, recognize that even when the degree did carry value, it only carried value as a proxy indicating if a person had certain skills or abilities. But now we can screen for the skills we need from workers using assessments and simulation tools. We don’t need degrees to signal that anymore.