Why college?

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If colleges and universities want to increase student retention, improve graduation rates, improve industry relations, and enhance student-faculty engagement, they must alter their narrative and their products.

By: Erin Huizenga
Two weeks ago, our 9-year-old son Knox asked me, “Do I need to go to college?” It was that moment of parental panic when you think to yourself, this is critical to get this answer right. I said, “No, but it’s our job to help you figure out why you might want to go to a college or some kind of learning place that will help you get the skills you need to do the work you want to do.”

When I was teaching at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University, I started my classes with one simple question, “Why are you here?” Most of my students couldn’t tell me. They wanted to attend a good school so they could get some kind of good job at a good corporate business so they would be able to make enough money to live a good life. The sad part? They hoped to find their “why” along the way. Many didn’t. They have called me over the years to ask how they might do more “impactful” work now that they’ve (almost) paid their student debt.

While I was teaching at Northwestern, my partner Chris was teaching at Columbia College Chicago. We often compare notes about the fact that wealthy learners seem to not know their why and first generation college students do. At Columbia, students wanted to finish to be the first in their family with a college degree. Or they wanted to be a filmmaker and have known this since they were six. Or they wanted to move to Nashville to work with musicians and know this is the best way to do just that.

So ironically, college seems to now mean more to people who have come from very little. These learners know there are no guarantees or fast forwards to success if they don’t have a piece of paper to prove they’ve done the work. Many charter schools across the country are telling our underserved kids that the only way to success is in college graduation. Even Michelle Obama campaigned to help kids to understand they have to go to college to get a job and make a living wage.

But why are parents like us pushing all kids into college and so many are back to working in minimum wage jobs after graduation? With a 28% national college completion rate, the college promise is broken. According to CNBC in June of last year, 40% of college graduates take a job after graduation that doesn’t require a college degree. Students aren’t being trained for the jobs of today or building self confidence to make a living wage as their enrollments are shackling them with college debt while make the class divide wider and wider.

There are programs such as the University Innovation Alliance where Arizona State University and Georgia State University are part of a system strategy that is looking to transform how college is delivered to students through 100% online curriculum and other methodologies that are learner-centered. ASU partnered with Starbucks to help Starbucks employees to gain an undergraduate degree credential while paying no tuition. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation created Dell Scholars to help first generation students to finish college. Year Up is helping young people to move from minimum wage jobs to living wage careers through a one year job training curriculum. Programs like CareerConnect in Denver and Cristo Rey Network that has schools in 22 states are helping high school students to gain meaningful career experiences and profession-centric credentials before even graduating from high school. We started Till School to give high school students access to learning human-centered design curriculum while working on a real client project, gaining presentation skills, and networking with design professionals.

Programs like College for America at Southern New Hampshire University are flipping the credential model all together by leading with learning competencies. If a learner knows all the core college math they need to master in order to meet that competency for their major, why must we ask that learner to belabor through 2-3 semesters of curriculum they have already mastered?

For learners who want to be in the creative profession, programs like Shillington founded in Australia, General Assembly, and Miami Ad School offer fast and furious programs in creative practices. Shillington has a 3-month full-time, or 9-month part-time program that equips its graduates with the conceptual and tech skills they need to gain the job they want. Nothing more, nothing less.

Even for-profit businesses are now getting into the education game. IBM has created a design thinking framework and badging system. The Founding Partner and Chief Brand Officer at WeWork created WeGrow, a school that puts entrepreneurship at the center of its vision for young people. Back in 2017, Wired wrote about employers designing their own courses.

We’re getting there, but we need all high schools, colleges and universities, and learning and development leaders to focus less on their own success metrics based on legacy, research, and tenured faculty, and more on designing for access to the latest professional trends and job-related skills based on student interest. This is the future of post-secondary learning.

So the next time Knox asks me about college, I’m going to ask him, “Can you think of a few reasons why you might like to go based on who you are?”

Higher education institutions can continue vying for top-spots in the U.S. News & World Report’s lists of Best Of universities for (fill in the blank). But if they want to stop the annual jockeying and start looking at the long game of why they exist, then it’s time for administrators and trustees to take a long, hard look at how they might better prepare students for a profession that’s meaningful to them in the shortest time possible, and to help students focus on the work they are most excited to do. This means changing the narrative from simply offering the ever-devaluing degree and certificate programs to one where students are offered something truly remarkable… something that helps post-secondary schools to better share their unique value.