Should Gen-Ed Come Later? New Book Argues For Cheaper And Faster...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Should Gen-Ed Come Later? New Book Argues For Cheaper And Faster Alternatives to College

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 10, 2018

Should Gen-Ed Come Later? New Book Argues For Cheaper And Faster Alternatives to College

Debates about how to expand access to higher education often assume a one-size-fits-all model of what college should be. But new book due out this fall argues for the creation of colleges of many shapes and sizes, including a new set of low-cost options that are focused on helping students who just can’t afford a four-year campus experience get a first job.

The book is called “A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College,” and it is written by a venture capitalist making bets on which alternatives he thinks have the most promise.

The author is Ryan Craig, co-founder and managing director of University Ventures, and in the book he acknowledges a key drawback to the vision he is outlining. Many of these new college alternatives will intentionally leave out general education and extracurriculars—or time for pranks with roommates. Craig stresses that such full-service colleges will continue to survive for those who can afford them, but that providing more career-focused options will be better for social mobility and meaningful access without high degrees of debt.

Is his definition of access the most practical way to achieve broader higher-education participation? Or is it giving up on a segment of students?

EdSurge sat down with Craig to talk about the new book, and why he thinks the debate about college access should put less emphasis on the bachelor’s degree. In the full podcast version, he also shares his philosophy of what he looks for when picking colleges to invest in.

Subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: In your book, you talk about how higher education has a trust problem these days, and you argue that colleges have oversold the idea of the bachelor’s degree. What do you mean when you say we’ve developed a “cult of the bachelor’s degree?”

Craig: It’s important to recognize that the bachelor’s degree as a phenomenon is relatively recent in American history. Up until just after World War II, fewer than 5 percent of the working adult population had bachelor’s degrees. Today it’s north of 30 percent, and basically we have come to rely on the bachelor’s degree as the sole pathway to a successful career, and particularly one that doesn’t involve working with your hands and a blue-collar vocation or trade, which is what [most] parents want for their children.

We have developed this cult that you’re either going to go to college or if you don’t, maybe you’ll end up on Skid Row. I’m being a little facetious—but not that facetious. It literally has evolved to that point. A bachelor’s degree is the ticket to success and not having a bachelor’s degree is opposite.

It sounds like you feel that’s part of the narrative backdrop that makes it difficult for some alternatives to emerge.

Yeah, absolutely. Look, if it were easy, it would have happened already. But what the book talks about is these dual crises of affordability—which I think is well recognized—and employability—which is increasingly being recognized. These two crises are now acting on the sector and on the population to push the flowering of all of these alternatives to college.

People probably ask for your advice on whether they should actually consider these new options for their own children or nephews. When it gets that personal, what is your advice, and what do you recommend?

In the book I actually have a matrix where I say [the most important trait is selectivity]. It’s remarkable to most people that there are only 200 universities and colleges in the country that are selective, meaning [those]that admit fewer than 50 percent of applicants. Those selective schools, which frankly most of the listeners of this podcast will have attended, need to be treated differently because the reality is that the outcomes from those schools are much better than the outcomes we’re seeing from the other 3,800 schools. Some of that may be due to value added by the schools. Most of it, I believe, is due to the caliber of the inputs who were attracted to these schools.

By caliber, you mean the students were high-performing when they came in?

The students were high-performing and would have done well regardless.

In this matrix in the book I say, “Look, if you have an affordable package at a selective school, no one is going to cheer you on more than I will. Go do that. Take that.” Conversely, if it’s not a selective school, and it doesn’t pass that Lumina rule of 10 test, you should stay away from that like the plague. That’s a bad decision in almost every case for a young person or for an older adult who’s looking to upscale or retraining.

So you’re saying it’s not so much about the campus amenities or the quality of the teaching even, but it’s about the selectivity?

I think that’s the factor that leads to economic outcomes. Of course, what you study also matters a great deal. But at the outset certainly students are making the decision not about what they’re going to study as much, but more about where they’re going to go, or whether to go.

In the book we have a directory of 250 of these faster and cheaper alternatives that have emerged over the past few years. Again, they’re not preparing students for vocational trades or blue-collar jobs, but rather good jobs in IT and healthcare and so forth—growing sectors of the economy. But as the number of these programs goes from 250 to 2,500 to 25,000, and goes from tens of thousands of seats to hundreds of thousands of seats to millions of seats, that choice, that decision becomes a real one.

When Lumina came out with its rule of 10, which is the affordability criteria that I cite in the book, a few years ago, no one paid much attention. And no one paid much attention to it because when you only have one choice—which is go to college or end up on Skid Row—you’re going to go to the most affordable one you can. It doesn’t really matter whether the college or a college passes that test. As you have true alternatives emerging—faster and cheaper pathways to good first jobs emerging—you’ll have a real choice.

People have been talking about these emerging alternatives for a while, but so far they have been slow to catch on. Why has it been so slow, and why do you think now is different?

I don’t think it’s that slow. Coding boot camps have only been around for five or six years, so in the world of education, that’s super fast.

Sure, but the hype around MOOCs, or massive open online courses, said that people would start finding a cheap online replacement for college and that hasn’t happened.

You’ll note in the book I’m extremely skeptical about online [education]. I don’t think that online options are actually solving this problem.

These faster and cheaper programs tend to be immersive, work-like environments, that train both on the technical skills as well as the soft skills. These programs are producing what employers want, and they’re frankly producing what students want.

Young people understand that that old line by colleges that “We prepare you for your fifth job, not your first job,” is tired and discredited at this point. I wasn’t able to include in the book because it just came out, but the new research from Strada and Burning Glass about the persistence of underemployment showing that if you don’t get a good first job, you’re probably not going to get a good fifth job.

In fact, half of people who were under-employed in their first job are also under-employed 10 years later. Not surprisingly, careers and employment paths are path dependent, and getting that good first job in a growing sector of the economy is critical.

If you’re trying to solve for a good first job, you wouldn't build the system that we have now. And I recognize that to a lot of people in higher ed, that will sound heretical. But I also think that it’s important to recognize, and I cite a litany of statistics in the book, about how the millennial generation has just been slaughtered economically by this overwhelming focus on college and the degree as the sole pathway, and these crises of affordability and employability.

To use a medical analogy, we need to triage the situation, and the first thing we need to do is to stop the economic bleeding. And then once we’ve done that, we can then worry about the other important elements like citizenship and discovery and serendipity, and all of those things that makes college and universities great.

I can imagine the tweets coming in from some readers disagreeing with you here. Where does that work of training citizens get done? Aren’t those things pretty key?

Well, there’s no question. First of all in a faster and cheaper universe, you’re going to have to have career discovery at the secondary-school level. Which is to say that students are going to need to exit high school having a sense of which industry they might want to get a good first job in because the pathways are going to be very specific. You want to data analytics in healthcare? Here’s a six-month pathway, probably free to the student, employer paid, that has a guaranteed employment outcome where you know that you’ll come out making $45,000 to $50,000 a year doing a health business intelligence.

Throughout the book you share your own experiences as an undergraduate at Yale University, and your stories are not always about academics. In fact, a lot of them are pranks, goofing off with your roommates. I mean, it’s a lot of fun to read, but in this faster and cheaper alternative universe you lay out it doesn’t seem like there would be room for those antics at all.

Yeah, and I say that explicitly. Maybe it’s a eulogy to what we’re going to lose. Again, I want to be clear-eyed about this, that this is not a panacea. This is trying to improve economic outcomes for the Americans who are most at risk from the current system, who are not being well served by the current system. But I’m not claiming that it’s an adequate replacement for those who would have been successful in the current system.

I’m suggesting that we need more options, and I think that at least in Washington that it has bipartisan support—the notion that there really ought to be more options, more pathways to good jobs, and we’ll let students choose and evaluate the risk return.

I’m not arguing for a reduction in the aggregate or per-capita level of post-secondary education. That would be economic suicide in the global economy. What I am arguing for is the urgent need for a radical re-staging of how that post-secondary [education] is consumed. You’ll take a 3- to 6- to 9- to 12-month pathway to a good first job, preferably one where you don’t incur any debt, and you’ll go right into a good first job in a growing sector of the economy, making $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

You’ll work in that job for 2 to 3 years, you’ll really get a much better understanding of that industry, [and whether] it is really where you want to be. And you’ll look around and you’ll say, "Okay, what other skills do I need?" Then I think it’s going to be incumbent on the 4,000 higher-education institutions in this country to essentially offer a set of secondary and tertiary pathways that will address that population.

I can imagine it would feel like to some readers that you’re giving up on giving access to higher education.

I would be the last one to direct people away from college or university. I think that they will vote with their feet as these alternative pathways with guaranteed employment outcomes and no debt—or entirely free—become available.

What about the suggestions that community college should be free so students have a path from there to a four-year college?

I think that’s a fallacy. The notion that free community college is [ever] actually free is incorrect. Supporting yourself for two years, depending on where you live in America, is going to be somewhere between $15,000 to $30,000, and many of those students are taking on debt to support themselves through essentially two years of general education.

Another way to think about this is: let’s turn it upside down. The GenEd can come after. Let young people get their foot on the first rung of the career ladder, get some economic security with no debt, and then let’s worry about the general education that needs to happen. But that should not be the barrier or the gateway to getting a good first job and being a participant in the active economy—in the vibrant American economy.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up