I recently was talking with a recent college graduate. I heard him complain that university didn’t prepare him for work. He somehow felt ripped off, like he spent ALL THAT MONEY on an education and when he finally got his first job, he was completely unprepared. So I asked him to explain, and these were the core points he made.
College has really narrow individual effort and originality values that are 180 degrees different from the workplace.
That is interesting, I thought. My work experience is that collaboration is powerful, and that we share and borrow each others work product all the time. Whatever gets the job done faster and better is what is valued. If that is three people working together, or if it is looking at the “archive” of previous presentation materials, templates, knowledge management or research, all is available to use. With internal publication, you only cite resources to assume the credibility of the source, not to disclaim originality. Colleges punish students for “plagiarizing”, even repeating their own output from prior coursework! Colleges expect individual work, so they punish collaboration when they can detect it.
Course projects at college are abbreviated, and mostly hypothetical. No credit is given for pragmatic approaches. Team projects distribute the grade equally.
In the workplace, most of what matters is pragmatism. Will it work? Do we know how to do it? Can we afford it? Can we get it sponsored? Theory is interesting, but application is king. Taking concepts out of a book, an article, or a methodology are interesting, but if we can’t get everyone to understand it how effective will it be? Scholastic projects are too short to actually prove very much. You are required to follow the methodology, even if you know a faster more effective way. You are required to reference the concepts in the text, even if your own ideas are proven from experience. Work projects tend to be longer and have to produce actual value. Work projects have asymmetrical contributions from team members and rewards are also asymmetrically distributed.
Coursework does not fit into a larger picture.
In the workplace, things we do are valuable to someone. Since they reward us for doing them, we can assume they are valuable. In order to maximize rewards, we can understand who values our work, and why it is important. There is a frame of reference, even if it is limited to your team and your boss. At University, context, if discernible is artificial. The big picture is defined by your diploma, and perhaps some (very aspirational) career goal or notion. It is really hard to see how any one course, let alone an assignment or project fits into that bigger picture.
Grades and Diagnostics are not differentiated in coursework.
This may be the most damning critique. At work, we should receive feedback on how we are doing. That feedback should be designed to help us improve. Bosses often structure work so that our learning does not compromise the “real world delivery” of value. There are “grades” in the workplace in the form of performance evaluations for the purpose of rewards distribution (a.k.a. annual performance reviews). These are done after we receive regular and frequent “diagnostic” feedback.
In a collegiate setting, we rarely get any feedback that is not accompanied by a grade (which is immutable). Grades are “cumulative”. That means that our overall grade is “degraded” by any momentary performance gaps. We cannot invent extra credit or any way to “make up for performance gaps”. Once a grade has been assigned, we are stuck.
In the workplace, we are usually rewarded for improvement, and for extraordinary effort or heroics. We are rewarded when our teammates use us as a resource (copy our answers). We are rewarded for volume of output or throughput as well as quality of output. We are rewarded for staying late, showing up early, skipping lunch or any other measures to meet important goals. We are rewarded for thinking about what the boss wants, what the customer wants and making those wants come true.
Here is what I think. Academia is the way it is because it is insulated from competitive work. There are restrictions and limitations that make it very expensive for students to change colleges mid degree. There is almost always a loss of time and credit. The organizations that accredit colleges – that make college degrees “meaningful” – help enforce that monopoly. There is no incentive to change the system; it is a mostly closed system. The closest thing we have had to real change in education in the last 100 years is the online course. But that hasn’t really changed to process of diagnostic feedback and rewards. That hasn’t addressed any of the differences in values between workplace and university.
But do we go to college to get jobs?
You bet your sweet “bippy” we do, Gilligan. Is that a rational thing to do? Probably not. University or College was established to make people well rounded, intellectual, critical thinkers. The system was not really intended as mere career training. In fact, I think that most people capable of achieving a baccalaureate degree could probably learn enough to start a career in about 18 months of intensive study. Some technical disciplines require more, even 24 or 30 months. The mandatory 4 years is a completely arbitrary number. Now given the mostly ridiculous cost of higher education, and the level of debt most students incur to receive their degree – it seems that arbitrary length (and associated cost) is ripe for re-examination.
What is the deal with “gen ed”? Why can’t an engineer skip half of his general ed. requirements? Why do foreign language majors require statistics? And why is it that in 2017 every degree does not require some practical exposure to computer science or technology applications? It is completely arbitrary.
Have you considered the cost?
What our higher education system needs is a better understanding of the future value of money. The debt that I incur now, must guarantee me a long term higher paying career that I care about, in order to be worth the investment. So if I spend $80,000 on college now, and wait 4 years to get a job, how long will it take to “break even”? If I get a job at UPS making $15 per hour, and I work for 4 years at 2000 hours/year – that is $120,000. So after 4 years of college, I am $200,000 behind. Let’s say at UPS, my wages grown at 3% per year, and post college I get a job earning $18 per hour an if I am lucky my salary increases 5% per year. In this scenario, it is in year 21, from high school graduation, or 17 years after college graduation that I have finally made up the difference, and start to pull ahead of the non college me. Now of course this assumes that there are no career advancements on either side. No promotions to management, or any other changes. It is simply shocking how long it takes to pay back.
What ever made us think that 17 year old humans could make these decisions for themselves?