The Republican Party’s effort to cast doubt on the integrity of American democracy – driven equally by the current President’s malignant narcissism and the need to turn out QAnon loonies in the upcoming Georgia Senate run-offs – led a Philadelphia Judge to ask the Trump Campaign’s legal representative whether there were Republican observers watching the vote counting, and to this surprising admission: We have “a non-zero number of people in the room.”
2020 has been a year of non-zero surprises. One of the least recognized came from our smallest state (now just Rhode Island thanks to Governor Raimondo’s jettisoning of Providence Plantations). In June, in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests in Providence, two members of the white boy rap group WARAQ – The Tapioca Tornado and Transgender Janeane Garofalo – were charged with inciting riots and looting. Characterized as a gang by police, WARAQ comes straight outta Warwick and is mostly known for bootleg backyard videos where members read lyrics off their phones and then one member – Ghetto Where’s Waldo – surprises everyone by jumping into buildings or out from underneath buildings (or, memorably, from a box in his mom’s basement) to continue a surprisingly non-ironic rap.
The most ironic rap on our one-term President is that a man who fancied himself a builder got nothing built: not a wall with Mexico, not new roads, rails, or ports. Infrastructure Week occurred in June of 2017, but we're still waiting. All that got built under Trump was animus. Not surprisingly, there’s pent up demand for real building. In the depths of the spring lockdown, digital wunderkind and bon vivant Marc Andreessen wrote an alternatively ballyhooed and lampooned blog post titled It’s Time To Build. Andreessen criticized America’s “smug complacency” in failing to build not only Covid tests, therapies, or PPE, but also housing in our most dynamic urban areas, transportation between them, and new models for delivering education and skills. “Building,” he says, “is how we reboot the American dream. The things we build in huge quantities, like computers and TVs, drop rapidly in price. The things we don’t, like housing, schools, and hospitals, skyrocket in price.”
In higher education, building is often conflated with fancy new buildings on verdant campuses – nice things for rich people to slap their names on. Last year, in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, my partner Daniel Pianko criticized donors who continue to shovel money to our most elite institutions: “The 20 institutions that received 28% of all college donations last year educate just 1.6% of the country’s undergraduates.” MIT spent $94M to expand undergraduate capacity by 350 students. Princeton added 350 seats for $136M. And Yale beat them both by spending $500M to build two new residential colleges for 800 additional students. “Starchitect-designed” vanity buildings that grace the pages of Architectural Digest are a byproduct of a tax code that allows wealthy Americans to take tax deductions to honor themselves. You can’t take a tax deduction for donating a building to your country club, but you can for donating a building to your alma mater. The upshot is an approach to building that’s more likely to yield price increases than significant new capacity and the drops Andreessen seeks.
As demonstrated by the mindboggling number of votes for the failed builder/entertainer/autocrat in the Oval Office, what higher education really needs to build is greater economic opportunity. We’re seeing signs of a shift. At last year’s Morehouse commencement, rather than funding a new building, Bob Johnson sensibly announced he’d repay the student loan debt of 400 new graduates, permitting them to enter the job market without one hand tied behind their backs. But while lack of debt – or free college – may provide graduates with flexibility to search for a good (or better) job, it may not lead to increased economic opportunity as it omits a fairly important component of the employment equation: the employer.
Employers are increasingly seeking candidates with discrete sets of specific – increasingly digital – skills who are ready to be productive on day one. Meanwhile, colleges and universities continue to focus on the capabilities they recognize in their most successful graduates: critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. The primary roadblock to economic opportunity – to rekindling the American Dream – is the vast and growing distance between employers and colleges. It’s no exaggeration to say employers are from Mars and colleges are from Venus.
Like every self-help book, the dumb 1990s bestseller Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, has at least one obvious insight: relationship problems are often a result of poor communication. To persist and succeed, a partner must pick up on the other’s cues. So while not as glamorous as a beautiful new dorm or stadium, what needs to be built in higher education is better communication between producers and consumers of talent. And don’t count on Martian employers to do the work. The onus will fall squarely on Venus: the thousands of higher education institutions collecting $600B each year in tuition and fees.
It’s hard for any college, university, or state system to build faster + cheaper pathways to good jobs. They risk cannibalizing their own degree bundles and scandalizing their trustees, only then to face the institutional inertia at the root of that old saw: No one’s ever gone broke betting against the pace of change in higher education. But there are two ways each and every postsecondary institution can begin building to increase economic opportunity:
1) Build and Measure Cognitive Skills
Employers say they want the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that higher education loves to focus on. But because no one has asked colleges and universities to measure these skills, they remain amorphous and intangible to employers. In the absence of widespread competency-based assessments in the hiring process, which remain impractical for U.S. employers for regulatory reasons, there’s still no good way to screen job seekers on cognitive skills at the top of the hiring funnel. And with hundreds of applicants for every open position, the current solution for screening who should be looked at by a human hiring or HR manager is keyword-based screening by applicant tracking systems. These hinge on keywords listed in job descriptions, which are disproportionately digital in nature – due both to accelerating digital transformation, as well as the fact that – unlike the Inuit and their 50 different words for snow – there are a very limited number of terms for key cognitive skills.
Employers know cognitive skills are predictive of long-term employee performance and retention. Much of what happens in the middle and at the bottom of the hiring funnel (i.e., interviews) is informal cognitive skill assessment, along with behavioral/cultural fit. But failing to systematically assess cognitive skills at the top of the funnel is driving underemployment, employers abandoning entry-level training, and the skills gap. There are precious few instruments that assess cognitive skills of college graduates, and zero that communicate with corporate HR information systems to be useful as a top-of-funnel screen.
To improve communication with employers, colleges and universities should immediately build and administer standardized assessments to measure and report on a range of cognitive skills. Job descriptions are listing leeward into a sea of 1s and 0s because employers can’t screen on the skills that matter most. The way to right the ship is for higher education institutions to provide cognitive skill ballast that is intelligible not only to employer hiring managers, but also to the applicant tracking systems currently sorting winners from losers at the top of the hiring funnel.
2) Build Back from Employment
In the employer-college relationship, employers provide cues via job descriptions. But colleges and universities aren’t picking up on them. You’d be hard pressed to find a faculty member or department chair who’s read a job description in the past year (other than a higher education job they might want themselves), or who solicits advice from career services (let alone employers) in planning programmatic or curricular changes.
When 90%+ of students enroll for the express purpose of landing a good (or better) job, it’s archaic to situate the employment function in a benighted corner of the institution, separate from programs, curriculum, instruction, and every other function with a higher status than career services (i.e., every other function). Start by getting rid of the name, which conveys to students they aren’t expected to think about employment until the conclusion of their program – the point of no return for skill development. Employment must be integrated into the student experience from the start. Students should be thinking about employment opportunities as they select programs, courses, and majors, and that requires building employment awareness and capabilities at the departmental and faculty level. Faculty and instructors can no longer remain isolated from and ignorant of job descriptions or labor market data; they should understand how graduates from their courses and programs launch their careers (or fail to do so) and undertake to build a network of relevant hiring managers and mentors for the benefit of their students. It’s our best hope for rationalizing the labor market swirl that EMSI identified last year i.e., rather than providing linear paths to good jobs, the six most popular college majors pursue the exact same jobs in sales, marketing, management, business, and financial analysis, with paltry results.
President-elect Biden has given a name to his economic platform: Build Back Better. It’s appropriate for our sector, not only because it signals building back from employment, but also because at the dawn of American higher education, the primary purpose of bachelor’s degrees was to signify the social status of the sons of the merchant elite. College as we know it was built for the 1%, not the 99%. Build Back Better means building for the 99%, which means new pathways to economic opportunity. By doing so, colleges and universities can fulfill their missions by helping to build back from the most severe income inequality among all developed countries, and back from the urban/rural geographic inequality that has given rise to unprecedented political polarization.
Marc Andreessen wants every American to ask, “every step of the way, to everyone around us… what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building? If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built… we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building. There are always outstanding people in even the most broken systems — we need to get all the talent we can on the biggest problems we have, and on building the answers to those problems.” American colleges and universities employ nearly 3M professionals. That’s a lot of potential builders. To build what really needs to be built, we don’t need architects or starchitects or general contractors; we have the talent we need to build back from employers, even if they are on Mars.
Students who risk tens of thousands of dollars and years of their life on a college or university program should be pretty sure they’ll get a good job. The way to stop the next Donald Trump is to achieve non-zero outcomes for many more students.