College Isn’t a Cure-All

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz writing for the Harvard Business Review (HBR) tackled the topic of higher education and full employment leaving out, for now, the idea of a lasting peace of mind. Of course, although there may be a multi-decade correlation between a college degree and three or less careers in one’s lifetime, equaling financial security, or as we are fond of calling it at Creative Marbles, “The Golden Ticket”, does not mean causation, which may be a conclusion from this HBR article to which we couldn’t agree with more

College should mark the end of training for a successful career not the beginning of yet more training, yet increasingly according to Mr. Chamorro-Premuzic and Ms. Frankiewicz is not necessarily the case, which we suggest, is at a cost both for employers who have to foot the bill for additional training and for students and their families in tuition which are rising faster than the cost of inflation at least in the United States for an experience and education, that does not in the end, lead to the end of training or worse, yet employment concomitant with the college degree acquired. 

We often hear employers and business leaders lament the unfortunate gap between what students learn in college and what they are actually expected to know in order to be job-ready. This is particularly alarming in light of the large — and still growing — number of people graduating from university: above 40% of 25 to 34-year-olds in OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] countries, and nearly 50% of 25 to 34-year-olds in America.

Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs?, January 7, 2019, updated January 14, 2019

While potentially contradictory to the modern American urban legend that a college degree equals lifelong economic prosperity, we are not surprised that amongst the increasing number of people graduating from college, what they are learning in college does not prepare them to effectively perform their jobs. 

Every year, we meet 22-25 year olds who believed that earning a college degree would be a cure-all, and upon choosing college, let alone a particular college, they need not have thought through their investment in higher education, if they even perceive college as a higher education, but instead more like a four year long “gap year” from the tedium of adulthood

Most students simply endeavor to get accepted to college, assuming the “better” the brand name of the college, the more likely they’ll join Easy Street just by graduating from said renowned college, confidence in an aptitude not necessary, ordained (and deserving) to be hired, and compensated accordingly by a firm that has to be productive in order to remain profitable, thus solvent.  

Although there is a clear premium on education — recent reports from The Economist suggest that the ROI of a college degree has never been higher for young people — the value added from a college degree decreases as the number of graduates increases.

So, while tertiary degrees may still lead to higher-paying jobs, the same employers handing out these jobs are hurting themselves — and young people — by limiting their candidate pool to college graduates. In an age of ubiquitous disruption and unpredictable job evolution, it is hard to argue that the knowledge acquisition historically associated with a university degree is still relevant.

CMC:  So yes, college education benefits some, but not all, and given the evolving job market, may not even be needed and yet still seems to be encouraged, and for many, expected. Is the College Industrial Education Complex propping up its own supply by promoting that college degrees are essential to acquire any job, and thus find sanctuary in the middle class which creates an over-investment in college, and quite possibly an underinvestment in secondary and trade schools, all the while employers lament that they can’t find enough qualified workers? 

At the same time, as university qualifications become more commonplace, recruiters and employers will increasingly demand them, regardless of whether they are actually required for a specific job.

CMC: Demanding college degrees thinking that it will improve the firm’s productivity, margins and thus profitability is reasonable. However, management must still align the ability of workers with processes to be completed, irrespective of where they went to college—often where admissions policy reflects aristocracy, not meritocracy—or even if they went to college at all, to improve the profitability and sustainability of a given firm at the end of the day. 

the research shows that intelligence scores are a much better indicator of job potential. If we were to pick between a candidate with a college degree and a candidate with a higher intelligence score, we could expect the latter to outperform the former in most jobs, particularly when those jobs require constant thinking and learning. Academic grades are indicative of how much a candidate has studied, but their performance on an intelligence test reflects their actual ability to learn, reason, and think logically.

CMC: A college degree also indicates an ability to follow directions (typically unquestioningly or with little resistance, as individualism is not necessarily honored nor often acceptable in more rigorous systems of education, like Advanced Placement (AP) courses, the antithesis of the problem-solving skills prized by employers, which require workers have the courage to not only think imaginatively, but also share such original thoughts with their team and supervisors. Thus, college graduates may be misplaced as the economy continues evolving, remaining either unemployed, underemployed, or in need of more training—a continued cost to employers, potentially indicating malinvestment in a college education

College degrees are also confounded with social class and play a part in reducing social mobility and augmenting inequality. Many universities do select students on meritocratic grounds, but even merit-based selection is conflated with variables that decrease the diversity of admitted applicants. In many societies, there is a strong degree of assortative mating based on income and class. In the U.S., affluent people are more likely to marry other affluent people, and families with more money can afford to pay for schools, tutors, extracurriculars, and other privileges that increase their child’s likelihood of accessing an elite college education. This, in turn, affects the entire trajectory of that child’s future, including their future career prospects — providing a clear advantage to some and a clear disadvantage to others.

CMC:  The adage remains that, “It’s not what you know but who you know that matters”; therefore, don’t concern yourself with gaining confidence in an aptitude just score the reputational points in an elite admissions, leveling up to a higher social standing, the proper pedigree if you will, and “Presto! You’ve got it made, lifelong prosperity”—echoes of the old aristocracy being alive and well, or the gamed meritocracy is the new aristocracy, pick your poison.

When employers attach value to university qualifications, it’s often because they see them as a reliable indicator of a candidate’s intellectual competence. If that is their focus, why not just use psychological assessments instead, which are much more predictive of future job performance, and less confounded with socioeconomic status and demographic variables?

CMC: Intellectual competence captured with psychological assessment is limiting, as assessments can reflect the cultural perspective, thus bias, of the writer(s), essentially testing for whom belongs to a particular cultural group. How about reforming the college admissions process so as to increase the likelihood of better selecting the effective candidates for the limited supply of college degrees? How about, at least, closing the loopholes of the bigger the donor, or a legacy candidate, the more likely the admissions offer or if an athlete who helps us win, only validating the university’s reputation and prowess, then admissions is all, but guaranteed. 

Having said that, universities could substantially increase the value of the college degree if they spent more time teaching their students critical soft skills. Recruiters and employers are unlikely to be impressed by candidates unless they can demonstrate a certain degree of people-skills. This is perhaps one of the biggest differences between what universities and employers look for in applicants. While employers want candidates with higher levels of EQ, resilience, empathy, and integrity, those are rarely attributes that universities nurture or select for in admissions. As the impact of AI and disruptive technology grows, candidates who can perform tasks that machines cannot are becoming more valuable — and that underscores the growing importance of soft skills, which are hard for machines to emulate.

CMCYou can’t teach soft skills. Ethics, morality, spiritually depend on how one was influenced as a child, a zero to nine years of age—homespun education—mitigated maybe in college or hardened by college culture that is less about discovering wisdom and validating ability, and more about improving rankings of all sorts by raising the selectivity (otherwise known as the rejection rate and exclusivity), thus only decreasing the likelihood of a diverse population of students shaped by the multitudinous life experiences reflective of the labor market for which they will eventually need to join, and for which many students quote as their primary reason for attending college in the first place.

In a recent ManpowerGroup survey of 2,000 employers, over 50% of organizations listed problem-solving, collaboration, customer service, and communication as the most valued skills. Likewise, a recent report by Josh Bersin noted that employers today are as likely to select candidates for their adaptability, culture fit, and growth potential as for in-demand technical skills (e.g. python, analytics, cloud computing). Additionally, employers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, have highlighted the importance of learnability — being curious and having a hungry mind — as a key indicator of career potential. This is likely a result of the growing focus on employee training — one report shows U.S. companies spent over $90 billion on it in 2017. Hiring people with curiosity is likely to maximize the ROI of these programs.

CMC: To live is to learn, which doesn’t only occur during school hours. As all experience is the path to understanding, more experience equals more knowledge, and the more confidence in knowledge, the more likely to be refined into wisdom in school. 

Also, let’s not discount in The Digital Age, the propensity for autodidactic learning, as many consume voraciously what the internet serves up 24/7/365, unfiltered, unconstrained knowledge without the need to jump through the endless rings of fire—teacher’s grading rubrics, the limitations of learning in 55 minute bites, constrained by curriculum standards devised by people not actively working in a classroom—all inherent in a formal education.  

There is also a huge opportunity for colleges to restore their relevance by helping to fill the learning gap many managers face when they are promoted into a leadership role. Today, people often take on leadership positions without much formal management training. Often, the strongest individual contributors are promoted into management, even though they haven’t developed the skills needed to lead a team. But if more schools invested in teaching those skills, organizations would have a larger amount of candidates with leadership potential.

CMC: Wishful thinking. Probably not going to happen for many of the reasons we stated above, as well as in the hand-to-hand academic combat of the modern academic meritocracy, where the daily comparison of test scores, consistent monitoring through TurnItIn-like algorithmic academic scanning software to stymy cheating, as well as checking class rankings like a minute by minute stock chart, discourages collaborative learning, nor do we believe that is the purpose of college. 

In short, we believe that market demands clearly call for a paradigm change. More and more students are spending more and more money on higher education, and their main goal is largely pragmatic: to boost their employability and be a valuable contributor to the economy. Even if the value attached to a university degree is beneficial to those who obtain it, companies can help change the narrative by putting less weight on “higher education” as a measure of intellectual competence and job potential, and instead, approach hiring with more open-mindedness.

CMC: We couldn’t agree more!!


To learn more how Creative Marbles Consultancy’s educational experts help families resolve complex educational concerns seeking the greatest value in higher education to prepare for the complicated labor markets, click creativemarbles.com

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About Art Baird, Founding Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Art melds his passion for acquiring and disseminating knowledge with his decades of experience teaching into straightforward, collaborative advising. His pointed questioning facilitates debate, empowering clients to achieve their vision in education and in life.
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