Thoughts on higher education and jobs

7 August 2011

If you are coming out of college today without a specific skill or experience in a area where your degree is focused, don't be surprised if you can't find a job. According to a recent article in CNN Money, 85% of college grads are moving back home before finding a job. 1

Peter Thiel's announcement of his 20 under 20 program where he also mentioned he thought there was a looming bubble in higher education because people blindly invested in higher and higher cost degrees assuming that the value would never go down. This got me thinking a lot about the value of my own higher education and whether it was worth it.

I have been in a twitter debate at length with one of my professors about whether there is a bubble in higher education. Based on the previously mentioned stats, the continuously upward trend of tuitions, and seeming lack of knowledge graduates command when they hit the real world (and I attend a state university which is by comparison to most, cheap). He states that the value of a degree over the long term greatly outweighs current college graduate's problems, pointing to facts like people with an undergraduate degree make $1M more over their working careers than non-college graduates [2]. Which that gap is even wider if you have a more advanced degree. He also pointed out that job growth is in areas that require advanced degrees.

My first reaction was that this census data wasn't showing the latest trends, that our economy and society is moving so fast now that 9 year old data is is massively out of date. But he responded with data that showed income is still going up (as of 2008) [3]. So is my argument complete bust? Is higher education in its current form the greatest thing since sliced bread?

I still don't think so and let me tell you why.

I think these advanced degrees are devaluing undergraduate degrees, making them stepping stones to a higher education requirement, but I suppose that is what happens as human knowledge continues to increase year after year. It takes us longer to learn everything we need to know. That I'm okay with, but I think undergraduate degrees should come down in price accordingly.

The bigger problem, I think, is the number of college students graduating without a real skill or real work experience. I'm not talking about engineers, accountants, or graphic designers (although you can argue the quality of K-State's graphic design program). I'm talking about Management majors, Marketing majors, Philosophy or mostly anything that falls under a Bachelor's of Arts degree and yes probably Entrepreneurship majors like me. Either these colleges fail to teach an actual skill that can be used immediately in a career or the people they produce vary so wildly in their quality, who knows if they'll find a job.


It takes 10,000 hours to master a skill.

That is roughly 4-5 years depending on how much time you can spend on it per day. Why aren't we forced to start mastering a skill in college? Don't get me wrong some of people are forced to master a skill, Engineers are forced into understand Calculus and Differential equations and alot of other Math related stuff that has real value in their field. Computer Science students are taught fundamentals of programming and have to spend hours writing code (still not sure about how practical K-State's CS department is, I think it could use some real life, cutting edge application think: NoSQL and Event Driven programming). Accounting majors are forced to do accounting, same with Finance, and Graphic design.


But the rest of us, we sit in lecture halls, mindlessly memorizing knowledge.

Last semester, I went to my Business Law I class a total of 5 times. I'm sure the class met at least 45 times, thats roughly 11% attendance. I got a high B in the class. All I had to do was memorize the Notes. I don't need to memorize Management theories or how to do Market Research or how to characterize a Market, or how to calculate my break-even point. I can read a book, or better yet, Google it. Its not rocket science, as long as you understand the basic vocabulary you can catch on pretty quick.

There are jobs, Google or Facebook and many other start up companies are constantly looking for software developers, they just require you have a skill.

I think the solutions involves thinking about higher education differently that we do now. I think we need to force students to pick a skill or skill(s) and a field of study. The field of study will cover things like Management Theory or Business Law. The skill would be focused on practice and experience in the chosen area, things like Sales, Accounting, Finance, Graphic Design, Programming.

Somewhere in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers he states something like: There is no significant difference in success of someone with an IQ of 120 and an IQ anywhere higher than 120. Which simplifies as: being smarter than someone else isn't always a requirement, there is simply smart enough, and not smart enough. I have a feeling that the domain knowledge you learn in the field of study piece of my solution operates quite like this. If you are truly interested in something, you only need to be taught the basics before you can start keeping up to date on your own, without having to take tests and memorize notes. You simply pop open Google Reader every morning, check out whats going you are up to date.