Higher Education Failing Our Students



It’s no secret that the US is having some pretty severe issues in the education department these days. I’m going to focus just on the higher education aspect for this convo, but much of this can be applied across the board in terms of education. Warning – some of this may piss you off.

Everyone Gets a Trophy

Ahhh… the generation of everyone being a winner. I’m a millennial myself so I know all about this. It started around the late 80’s and has continued. All kids are winners. It doesn’t matter if you actually won the race or not, you get a trophy too. Everybody gets a trophy. I always hear Oprah in my mind on one of her famous giveaway shows – “You get a trophy and you get a trophy! E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E GETS A TROPHYYYYY!!!”

I digress. But, you get the point. Sure, I understand where it all came from. I totally get that parents want all kids to feel special. But, in doing so what in the world have we created? Everyone is now entitled to achieve everything without having to do much to earn it. How sustainable is that?

Personally, I don’t believe everyone should get a trophy. That’s not the real world. What happens when you leave the safe, “you’re so special” world of school and mommy and daddy? Newsflash – nobody gives a hoot about you in the real world. Sorry. I know that’s harsh. But, you’re not gonna get a trophy just for showing up to work. Even if you do really amazing stuff and make a company tons of money you still may never get a trophy.

So, the fact that kids are entering the college world thinking they are gonna get a trophy and that it shouldn’t be too hard is setting them up for failure. You can get a trophy. But, you have to earn it. And, that takes more than showing up.

Failure Factories

So what happens with this trophy fantasy? Colleges and universities are businesses. They’re not education institutions despite what they tell us and what we like to think. At the end of the day, businesses are about the bottom lines. Sure, some may be have a focus on doing good too, but the bottom line is the bottom line.

College and universities now have to play into the trophy world otherwise they will run out of students. After all, they have to stay in business too. How do they do that? By having paying clients, which are students paying tuition. Most colleges and universities (except the top dogs) have lowered their standards to actually be able to admit students. And, they kinda need ’em to stay in business.

Don’t Worry We’ll Waive It

One of the big recent trends for MBA students is the elimination of the GMAT entrance exam. Does it increase applicants? Yes. Does it increase admits? Yes. Does it increase enrollment? Yes. Sounds great, right? Sure, for the business of the university. What about for the students? Some might say yes since the argument out there that a test doesn’t measure anything and some people aren’t good “test takers” exists. BUT, I view it as being detrimental to students. This isn’t due to me having any romantic relationships with standardized tests. I don’t like them either! But, it’s a right of passage. You have to work hard, study, commit, take the exam. It shows and develops character. To me, if you can’t commit to an exam, why would you commit to an MBA program? If you “don’t have time” for the GMAT, why would you have time to go to class for two years?

As a former business school recruiter I always used the example that I took the GMAT FIVE TIMES to get into my MBA program of choice. Yes. Five times. Am I embarrassed of that? NO! I was determined to go where I wanted and I was willing to do everything I could. I dedicated a whole year since you can only take the exam every 6-8 weeks or so. I paid at least a few thousand dollar between the fees, prep courses, etc. I went to class 4 nights a week for a solid month or two. Long story short… I worked for it. I earned it. It showed character. It built character. It was my right of passage. It built confidence in myself. What would have happened if they said, “eh don’t worry about it just come on over and start class.” Hmmm… would it have meaned as much? No. Would I have developed my fierce persistence and “never give up” personality? Probably not. Would I have gone on to get a Doctorate too? Probably not. Would I be contributing as much to society long term? Probably not.

What I’m saying here is that the more we lower standards in our educational system, the more we make education easy and attainable for anyone and everyone, the less value it has. That’s nice if everyone in the country has a college degree but if they have no skills and poor character, what the hell does that do? I just creates more debt from student loans and less skilled workers for our economy. We’re not doing anyone a service by removing hoops and making it easier and easier so everyone gets a trophy and so colleges and universities can meet their quota. Sorry business schools, but the truth hurts.

Higher Education Failing Our Students

Another big way that higher education is failing our students is the lack of actual relevant skills being taught in the classroom and lack of integration of real world experience outside the classroom. Let’s break this down.

Faculty: I have tremendous respect for faculty that have done their time and been teaching for decades. But, I also see many older, tenured faculty that are totally outdated with what they’re teaching. Sure, some subjects may not change much. But, many do! I know keeping up with our fast paced world of technology and research isn’t easy. But, I also think we’re doing our students a disservice if we’re teaching them outdated stuff. For example, why should a student spend a few thousand dollars on a marketing course if it’s taught by someone who hasn’t been in marketing since 1995? Things have changed… Faculty need to be on top of the latest strategies, tactics, and information. I also see this all the time with faculty that are blatantly refusing to teach any classes online or even in a blended format. I get that the technology can be challenging and even scary. But, by not offering education in formats that are effective for students, we’re hindering them. Guess what, virtual classes and programs aren’t going away. So, you better get on it and do it well.

Technology: On that topic, let’s talk about the lack of technology skills that our students are being taught. To me, every single major should be integrating real world technology skills. It shouldn’t just be a select few. Everyone needs to know how to wear many hats and how to be effective with using technology. I’m not saying everyone has to be able to build a website or blog, but a lot of people right now are really quite stupid. I know that’s harsh. But, really. I’ve never seen so many people (of all ages) that simply don’t know how to do things that really aren’t that difficult and they need to know how to do. I’m talking about even basic computer usage and overall problem solving. What’s the point of a degree in something like philosophy if you don’t know how to do anything other than talk about theories? How will you develop your own curriculum if you want to go on and teach? How do you communicate in a global world? How do you use technology to enhance interaction and information transfer. And so on.

Curriculum and Programs: Overall, degree programs are also outdated.  A lot of schools don’t even offer programs that make sense for today’s workforce and skills needed. One reason for this is that higher education moves incredibly S-L-O-W. Seriously. I used to see snails passing me by in the hallways. By the time schools get around to approving a new program it’s already outdated. So, that’s one issue. Another is that higher education is full of ego-maniacs. Anytime you throw a bunch of doctoral level faculty and executive level admins together it’s gonna turn into Ego Fest 2015. And, I’m telling you it’s not quite like Stagecoach or Burning Man. Faculty all think their ideas and their specialties are totally amazing and the way of the world. Of course, that makes sense. I’m probably the same way. But, where it becomes an issue is when nobody goes up against the “wants” and presents the needs, hard data and the facts. Sure, a faculty member might want to develop a new PhD program in their area of expertise – that’s great that they’re passionate about it! But, maybe the data isn’t there to show it makes sense. Maybe it’s not good for students to invest the time and money into it. Maybe there’s ways to adjust it to make sense for the skills needed and the investment of the students.

Unfortunately, most higher education administrators don’t want to take reality into account. Administrators want to please faculty. It makes them look good. Faculty wants to create programs that make them stars. It’s a vicious ego cycle and if people don’t have the balls to step in, do the research, and adjust to the market, then we keep pumping out useless degrees at higher and higher price points. I’ve stepped in quite a few times in situations like these and I tell you from experience, it does not go over well. Ego fest continues and reality gets shoved to the side and thrown out the window like yesterday’s trash. The cycle continues.

Sure, you could say that it’s up to the students to decide on a program and if they choose a degree that doesn’t give them the skills they want then it’s on them. Not really. They are looking to educators to help advise them. They’re looking to the recruiters and the faculty and the advisers to help them be on the right path for success. If they could figure it all out on their own, they wouldn’t be there in the first place! It’s no wonder in the end they often feel duped if their degree didn’t pay off as “promised.” Of course the school recruiters are going to advise the prospective students to take the degree program – that’s their job. They’re sales people. Of course the faculty and administrators will advise prospects too. It’s their job too. So, prospective students are not getting objective recommendations when they look to an actual college or university for information and decision making guidance. Typically they don’t know that, especially early on in their educational career. They may get roped into a $75k bachelors degree in basket weaving and wonder why the hell they did it 5 years later. But, that’s too bad. Now they have to pay it back even though they don’t have any skills other than basket weaving which isn’t exactly hiring. And, then where’s the university to help? No where. And, you know the way to get out of paying back all those student loans you now owe? Death. That’s it. Whoops. If only they knew then what they know now.

What To Do?

The world of higher education in the US needs to shift gears and move the focus back to where it belongs – on the customer. In this case, the students. For starters, we need to do the following:

  1. Integrate robust online class technology WITH ample training for faculty across all generations. Don’t force faculty to teach online but make it exciting so that many will want to. Your university doesn’t have to offer online or even blended degrees but have the technology in place. You never know when it will make sense to offer an online class or even an online workshop. It’s better to be ahead of the game than scrambling to catch up.
  2. Update curriculum! Integrate real-world skills into all programs. Eliminate programs that just simply don’t make sense for students now or in the future. Create new programs that do make sense. And, don’t be afraid to be a trend setter! So many schools sit around and wait. They don’t want to create something new unless someone else is doing it. I always find this ironic since it goes against the heart of education and innovation. Get out there, do the research, create something innovative. Get off the “this is what we’ve always done” train. Get involved with accrediting organizations to try and make changes on a national scale!
  3. Diversify! Bring in lecturers, adjuncts, and even new full-time faculty that have more diverse, real world skills. Many colleges and universities won’t think of hiring someone unless they have 10-20 years in the classroom as well as their Doctorate. Mix it up. Educators come in all different shapes and sizes.
  4. Squash the ego. This one is the most challenging, of course. Ego is higher ed is always going to be there. But, if more people are bold, stand up, speak up and prove points based on market research, data, and past history, the more we can balance the ego with reality. In the long run, faculty and administrators will start to come to their senses about what’s successful and what will really make them all look good in the long run.

What are  your thoughts? Comment below!

If you have any questions or want advice on your own educational path, feel free to email me anytime. I’ve been through it and I’m happy to help.

Be good or be good at it,

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