Forget the Major (Part 1): The Ineffectiveness of Subject-Based Education

December 8, 2017 Zach Richardson No comments exist

I entered college knowing exactly why I was there: to get a degree in Accounting & Finance in 3 years. I earned nearly 30 Advanced Placement credits in high school, which equated to about one year of college. I knew I needed to build my network immediately, so I could get an internship by the end of my sophomore year. Because the Accounting & Finance degree required 128 credits to graduate, I knew some semesters would require I overload my schedule with 18 credits or more. My path was set and my focus clear: build a network, dominate school, and get internships.

I was a model college student. I wasn’t ambiguous about my future, I wasn’t studying an "impractical" major. I was focused. I was gaining employable skills, and I was going to finish a full year ahead of my peers.

Six and a half years later, I’m not a college graduate and have no plans to become one. No one will employ me in areas I studied because I don’t have a degree. So, I have to employ myself. I’m a collegiate failure; and falling further, and further behind the peers I once had a one-year advantage over.

What went wrong?

 

The Well-Worn Path

I landed an internship at a financial technology company during my sophomore year. A year later, I landed another one at a big 4 accounting firm. My first internship introduced me to the cutting edge of financial technology. I was surprised when I learned clients of the big 4 accounting firm didn’t use SQL databases or SaaS products. One hadn’t even adopted Excel. I realized there was opportunity in building new software, and I wanted to pursue that opportunity.

After two and a half years – with graduation in site, I switched majors. I felt it would be a personal betrayal if I finished Accounting & Finance because my heart was in Computer Science. I quickly discovered there is a difference between the workload in a business program and the workload in an engineering program. While I was able to work and study full-time in the Accounting & Finance program, that proved unrealistic in the Computer Science program. So, I quit my internship binge.

 

The Entrepreneurial Spirit

After such intense exposure to working in industry, I became stir crazy in school. I didn’t have the time to get a job, but I heard of a program called Venture College. I applied, got accepted, and immediately joined a funded startup as a co-founder in the CTO role.

I had no idea what I was doing. We went through an accelerator in Salt Lake – one of the best in the country. I recruited interns from the CS program to write code. We targeted freshman and sophomore students - too early in their studies to be of interest to larger companies. We hypothesized that if we invested in them before anyone else, they would remain loyal and grow with the company. One became the CTO of the company. One left to join another startup. The others left to build their own tech startup. The success of our approach served as validation for the approach I later took with Trailhead’s Code School and Apprentice Program.

After I left that startup, I persisted through my CS courses and returned to Venture College to pursue my own venture. I started a group that met once per week to drink beer and learn web development. I called it Hoppy Hackers. Two of my mentors took note. They were associated with Trailhead – Boise’s startup hub. I rebranded as Tyro, and pivoted into what is now Trailhead’s Code School and Apprentice Program.

 

The Wrong Mindset

I was frustrated by the CS program's lack of curriculum that prepared students for real-world software engineering jobs. I felt the program should have taught more skills in the areas of web development, frameworks, and libraries. I was standing outside the new CS building in downtown Boise with a professor whom I’d grown to admire. I told him I didn’t think it made sense for me to continue school. “You’re right!” He agreed. “It would be a waste of your time. You’re not open to what you would learn. You have the wrong mindset right now.”

He was right. Failing one of the easiest courses in the CS program that semester proved he was right. I had the wrong mindset. Although I had learned and accomplished many things in my college journey, my mindset about higher education had not changed since I first arrived on campus five years earlier. I still viewed a degree as being a means to an end – the end being a career. Because I discovered entrepreneurship to be the career path for me, a college degree wasn’t even the appropriate means to achieve the end I sought. I dropped out.

Many people have told me to just finish and get the piece of paper. I don’t have the time. Tyro is at a critical juncture and poised for a lot of growth in 2018. It would be detrimental to divert focus. Part of me wishes I would have approached higher education with the right mindset from the outset. But, I know I would never be where I am had I done so. I would like a diploma, but not at the expense of where I am or what I've learned.

Realizing I had the wrong mindset about higher education made me question if I’m the only one. Do other students have the wrong mindset? Do employers? Do professors? Do universities, themselves?

 

The University Social Contract

“I was on a panel at Notre Dame with Peter Thiel,” said Gordon Jones at a Capital City Development Corporation luncheon. “Peter posited that students attend Notre Dame to get a diploma, so they can get a good job. One of the Vice Presidents disagreed - arguing that students attend Notre Dame for the experience.”

“Peter is a very smart guy,” Gordon continued. “I wouldn’t recommend arguing with Peter. ‘I tell you what,’ said Peter, ‘announce that you’re not going to award any diplomas this school year. Then, let me know how many students still pay $40,000 for the experience you speak of.’ The Vice President was at a loss.”

Peter’s thought experiment epitomizes the social contract between employers, universities, and students. Employers prefer to hire graduates of universities – the more prestigious the university, the better. This creates inelastic demand among students to pursue higher education. Inelastic demand - combined with easy access to financing - leads to exuberant costs of attendance. If Peter is correct in his conclusion, then I am not the only student who has the wrong mindset. In fact, I am not the exception but the rule.

Indeed, this has been my experience. Most students I meet view college as being a means to an end. It’s not to say they don’t thoroughly enjoy learning along the way. Many do, and so did I. It’s just not the fundamental reason why they enroll.

 

Glorified Trade Schools

The university social contract imparts students with the wrong mindset about higher education – that college is a means to an end. The consequence of that mindset is that students fail to take full advantage of the learning opportunities universities provide. This is evidenced by the negative sentiment most students possess toward general education courses.

Are students the only group whose mindset has been wronged by the university social contract? I don't think so.

Universities continue to change according to the university social contract. The more employers want their graduates, the more universities tailor their programs to meet the needs of the employers who hire their graduates.

Is this not exactly what I wanted? Is this not exactly what I criticized the CS department of not doing enough of? Yes. I was wrong.

The university social contract has led universities to adopt a skills-based approach to education. Skills are subsets of subjects. Accounting is a subject. Proficiency in Excel is a skill. In the short-term, this approach is rewarding for employers, universities, and students. Students get upskilled, employers hire upskilled students, and universities earn tuition for mediating the transaction. The problem is that skills-based education is a race to the bottom. It is a competition between educators to upskill students most efficiently, and at the lowest price.

Let’s use Excel proficiency as an example. Suppose one university offers a semester-long, 3-credit course to train students to become efficient at Excel. Then, another university offers a similar course. Then, another, and another. At some point, one of the universities realizes they can beat out the others by offering the course online for a certificate, rather than for credit. Online learning is more efficient, and by offering it as a certificate, they can charge less than offering it for credit. To stay competitive, the other universities each create their own online certificate, and charge a little bit less than the going rate. Eventually, the going rate for online university certificate courses that teach Excel proficiency becomes zero.

Indeed, this tragedy of the commons is already happening in higher education – as evidenced by the recent release of hundreds of free online courses by universities. Some universities – like Arizona State University – have taken a seemingly novel approach to free online education by open sourcing their curriculum and charging students only if they wish to receive credit after completing the course. While novel today, that approach will still prove to be a race to the bottom tomorrow - as other universities follow suit.

By racing each other to the bottom, universities are destroying their value. Unfortunately, the race is like a drug addiction; and it is reinforced by the market. Employers demand a skilled workforce. Students demand to be taught the skills employers demand. This mandates universities to double-down on teaching skills. It is a vicious feedback loop that produces short-term results at the expense of long-term benefits; and it reduces universities to nothing more than glorified trade schools. Universities fail to see the danger because employers continue to hire graduates and students continue to pay [higher] tuition; for now.

Many employers have realized how inefficient universities are at skills-based education because of their semester-long schedules and course pre-requisites. The rise of alternative institutions – such as Coursera and Udacity – have motivated many employers to rethink how they equip their workforce with the skills they need. This has led many employers to adopt a curated microlearning approach. Progressive employers are less concerned about how – or where – their workforce acquires the skills they need. This threatens universities’ monopolies on subject-based education.

 

Learning How to Learn

Learning how to learn is regarded by most as the pinnacle outcome of higher education. Historically, universities have been the central repositories of knowledge and professors the agents who educate society on how to access that knowledge. Universities require every student to read books like Becoming a Learner that reinforce this paradigm.

I, too, bought into this paradigm of higher education. Much of my justification for leaving school was that I successfully learned how to learn. In high school, I taught myself how to trade stocks and options; not well, but at least I learned. I continued to teach myself in college, and I effectively learned the material I would in a finance degree before taking a single class at university. The department chair even appointed me to serve on the committee that manages the investment portfolio of Boise State’s endowment fund.

Learning how to learn is neither a robust nor sustainable value proposition. It is not a robust value proposition because many people have learned how to learn the skills they need, thanks to the internet. It is not a sustainable value proposition because the curriculum, itself, will render it a moot point. Students who have taken a college math class in recent years are likely familiar with ALEKS, or equivalent adaptive learning software. ALEKS adjusts problem sets for an individual student based on that student's performance on past problem sets.

Any student who has used ALEKS will also likely agree it is far from perfect. But, ALEKS is just the first step – not the final solution – in the future of adaptive learning software. As the quality of curriculum and effectiveness of adaptive software increase, the need for students to learn how to learn within the context of college courses will become unnecessary. The software and curriculum will adapt to make learning much easier for every student, according to their style.

Neither teaching skills nor teaching students how to learn are durable competitive advantages for universities.

So, are universities doomed to be displaced by technology? Maybe. Maybe not.

 

Learning How to Think

My Venture College co-founder earned his degree in English Literature. “What business,” I thought, “does an English Literature graduate have starting a software company?”

Like many fellow business school students, I questioned the merits of “useless” majors, like arts and humanities. Even though I played the saxophone growing up, I didn’t see the value in majoring in Music, Philosophy, Art History, English Literature, or the like. Such fields taught no practical skills.

“I don’t remember anything I read in college,” he said. “What I did learn was how to look at things through different lenses. I was forced to evaluate a piece of literature through a social lens, an economic lens, a political lens, and so on. That ability has served me well in my career.”

One of my advisors sold a company to a big 4 accounting firm. As part of the sale, he became Managing Partner of their North America Technology practice. During his time there, his group explored what characteristics predict performance of IT professionals. The strongest correlation they found was whether the IT professional was also a musician.

Why is an English Literature major able to succeed as a tech entrepreneur? Why did one of the big 4 accounting firms find musicianship to be the top predictor of performance of IT professionals? Why do so many students at elite universities major in social sciences? What can we learn from these findings?

Let’s re-examine what my business partner said. The value he gained from his degree does not lend itself to the paradigm of skills-based education. I have yet to see a job posting with the description: “Ability to look at literature through different lenses.” Nor does it lend itself to learning how to learn. He did not say he learned a process to acquire new knowledge. He said he learned how to evaluate his existing knowledge from multiple perspectives. That is to say, he learned how to think; and he applied the way he learned how to think to create a successful startup.

Closer examination of the IT musicians draws similar conclusions. Learning how to play music teaches numerous ways of thinking that transfer well to IT. Musicians in a band are like software engineers in a company. In a band, musicians practice their parts individually. They needn’t concern themselves with what other band members are practicing because everyone is performing in the same key, at the same tempo. When the band performs together, everything runs smoothly despite being abstracted from one another in practice. Software engineers write their code individually. They needn’t concern themselves with the code other engineers write because they have agreed upon the interfaces to exchange data each engineer's code inputs and outputs, beforehand. When they deploy, their code merges together seamlessly.

The world's most successful innovators and entrepreneurs understand the importance of learning how to think. In his “Lost Interview”, Steve Jobs argues that everyone should take a year to learn how to program a computer because it teaches them how to think in a certain way, just like studying law teaches people how to think in a certain way. Reid Hoffman credits much of his success as an investor and entrepreneur to the critical thinking skills he acquired in his Philosophy studies.

Learning how to think and how to apply one’s thinking to real-world environments is a superior value proposition to learning entry-level skills or learning how to learn, because it is robust and sustainable. Learning how to think requires feedback loops in high context environments – environments with many variables and unique situations. Technology does not adapt well to high context environments. Therefore, it is unlikely for adaptive learning software to replace human beings in these roles.

Learning how to think in new ways requires three things: high context environments, knowledgeable and wise mediators to provide feedback, and time. Unlike learning new skills or learning how to learn, learning how to think is not easily rushed.

What better setting is there to learn how to think than a university classroom?

 

The Current Model: Subject-Based Education

The most common model for describing higher education is an inverted T:

Students spend the first two years studying general education subjects, including arts, humanities, social sciences, physical sciences, and math. Many students take the pragmatic approach of completing these courses in community colleges before enrolling in four-year universities. Students then spend the last two years taking courses required to complete their major. Effectively, students learn how to learn in the first two years, and learn the skills they need to get a job in the last two.

As we’ve discussed, the value universities add in the first two years is prone to dilution by curriculum and software that adapts to students, individually. The value universities add in the last two years is prone to dilution by employers' adoption of curated microlearning. Note, too, that learning how to think is not designed into the current model. It is a hopeful side effect of learning how to learn and learning practical skills. In my experience, it rarely happens.

So, how might we redesign higher education to teach every student how to think? Find out in Part 2.

 

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