Work Backwards: A Design Thinking Approach to Higher Education

Volume VIII, #14

In my copious spare time, I enjoy compiling a list of bad ideas for universities. Here’s what’s currently at the top:

  • University of Antarctica – an opportunity to create the first university on the last continent. And why not, since every northern country except Canada has already established a university above the Arctic Circle, and Canada is suddenly intent on establishing three?
  • Fortune Cookie University – institution where the entire curriculum is delivered via messages inside fortune cookies. Could result in weight gain; will result in surfeit of lucky numbers.
  • Grade Inflation University – school that compensates for poor employment outcomes by retroactively awarding graduates higher grades, including the innovative A+*. Oh wait, that school already exists.
  • Trump University – no, not the shuttered real estate scam, but rather an institution that gets to the essence of Trump by training public figures to disregard their better judgment and say whatever the hell pops into their heads at any given time.
  • Free College – where tuition is covered – but not the more expensive cost of living (for which debt-producing loans remain available) – as a means to encourage enrollment by students who are least likely to complete.

While the order isn’t set, somewhere on this list you’ll also find a more fundamental characteristic of America’s colleges and universities: building forward from K-12 education.


Education has always been designed forwards, or from left to right. What do students already know, and what’s the logical progression? Secondary education follows primary education in language arts, social studies, math, and science. And while postsecondary education allows greater choice, for most students the first 30 or 60 credits of general education follow naturally from what they learned in high school.

Forward works for some, but not nearly enough. With close to half of students who enroll in undergraduate degree programs failing to complete, alternatives are desperately needed. Enter Design Thinking, Silicon Valley’s problem solving methodology of choice which starts with two precepts: 1) Empathize with those whom you’re trying to serve; and 2) Define their needs.

First and foremost, colleges and universities owe empathy to tuition-paying students. And although few are listening, students have been screaming for a few years that they need economic security via a good first job in a growing sector of the economy – screaming amplified last month by the report from Strada Education Network’s Institute for the Future of Work on the lasting effects of underemployment in the first job after college. Students are desperate to get a foot on the first rung of a career ladder with as little debt as possible.

Second, higher education institutions owe empathy to society which looks to them as our primary engine for human capital development, and which grants them preferred tax status. And despite a “full employment” economy, there are many symptoms indicating that the labor market is not at all healthy: in the past decade nearly 10M working age Americans have fallen out of the labor market; nearly 5M Americans are working part-time, but would like to work full-time; millions are struggling to make ends meet in the gig economy; real incomes have stagnated for all save the wealthiest; nearly 7M unfilled jobs, approximately 3 of which are middle and higher skill positions. According to CNBC, “America’s labor shortage is approaching epidemic proportions.”

A Design Thinking approach to higher education works backwards from the first job, not forward from high school. Start with the requirements of entry-level positions in key skill gap areas (in IT, data analytics, healthcare, biotech, finance, energy, sales, digital marketing) and design pathways that directly address student and employer needs.

There are a couple of immediate implications. The first is a rethinking of general education. As George Mehaffy, VP of Academic Leadership and Change at AASCU, has said, “I call the first year curriculum the broccoli curriculum. It looks nice, and may be good for you, but nobody wants to eat it. Students take things that look strange, disconnected from their lives and experiences, but are told that it will be good for them later on.” While general education courses may have a connection with the work students did in high school, there’s no effort to demonstrate relevance to succeeding in a good first job, or – of more immediate relevance to students – landing that good first job. Again, George Mehaffy: “we’re famous for telling students that they must take general education courses but never explain to them [why]… We must be explicit with students, in as many ways as we can, about the purpose of our structures and programs.”

But explaining why doesn’t go nearly far enough. Real curricular changes are required. Calculus dominates U.S. high school math (along with algebra and trigonometry) and – consistent with working forwards – is a staple of freshman year, often utilized as a “weed out” class for STEM majors. But, as many commentators have recognized, calculus has very limited applicability in the real world. On the other hand, while statistics is rarely taken in high school or the first year of college, it’s increasingly imperative for many entry-level jobs that require interpreting and manipulating data, not to mention being an informed citizen. Calculus is what we get from building forward; statistics is what we get when we build backwards. But no college or university has responded specifically and systematically to this challenge.

Bryan Alexander, self-proclaimed futurist of higher education, sees colleges and universities being forced to work backwards from the first job. Because there are many available jobs in healthcare, he sees campuses with “more nursing programs, more radiology, more full medical schools… They may have more and more pre-med programs that are shaped from other programs. You can imagine this backwards a bit to K-12, where people in high school want to take pre-pre-med programs.” “In many ways,” he adds, “we’d just become more medical, and more medically inclined.”

Beyond curriculum, a Design Thinking approach to higher education is likely to impact an institution’s structure. Because prioritizing first jobs means helping place students in jobs much more effectively than the loose connection currently performed by career services departments, the most successful postsecondary institutions or organizations will be those that not only make a connection between students and employers, but that provide a friction-free pathway for both students and employers. Eliminating friction for students or candidates means guaranteeing a job. And eliminating friction for employers means allowing employers to evaluate candidate performance on real project work before being required to make a hiring decision. Few colleges and universities are currently organized to do either. But to the extent that Design Thinking begins to take hold, institutions may have to make significant organizational changes in order to remain competitive.


Most currently employed at colleges and universities will disagree with a Design Thinking approach. They will say that a great deal will be lost by working backwards from the first job. And they’re right. In my upcoming book, A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, I mourn these losses: discovery, serendipity, and fun. (Cognitive skill development is another area of concern, but there are reasons to believe this threat is overstated.)

While these risks are sobering, I’ve always believed in triage when confronted with a complex problem. If you’ve seen a medical show on television, you know what I mean by triage: A patient comes in with a dozen medical problems, ER docs address the most life-threatening one first. For higher education, the patient is bleeding out on the table – in economic terms. Once we’ve addressed the economic demands of students and society, we can worry about the rest.

Another benefit to a Design Thinking approach is simplicity. What makes an educational approach or program good is like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: there are simply too many variables. But a Design Thinking approach radically simplifies the question of measuring quality. Either graduates are getting good first jobs (which we define as full-time, $50k+ starting salary, in a growing sector of the economy, leading to numerous career paths), or they’re not. A Design Thinking lens doesn’t account for all the outcomes we want from higher education, but in terms of evaluating quality, it’s a much clearer starting point than what we have now i.e., myriad mindless college rankings.

Design Thinking isn’t imperative for every college and university. Many students are succeeding in the current system and, for these students, the enrollment future may continue to look a lot like the enrollment past. But these students are primarily our most privileged, who are probably going to do fine anyway due to family support and networks (and perhaps whether or not they attend college in the first place).

The result of a Design Thinking approach should not be a second, lesser tier to serve students from less privileged backgrounds. The point is to create shortcuts to the good first jobs that are currently being distributed so as to reinforce inequality. Working backwards from the first job is a promising strategy for those not well served by the current system. Failure to take any action ranks at the top of the list of bad ideas for universities.


Three articles that tell us where the puck is going in higher education

1. Employers Can’t Find The Skills They Need Staffing Industry Analysts report on Manpower survey showing 46% of U.S. employers say they can’t find the skills they need – up from 32% in 2015. ‘We continue to see increasing demand for skilled workers across all sectors of the U.S. economy from transport and trade to manufacturing and sales,’ said Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America. ‘Employers cannot find the people they need with the right blend of technical skills and human strengths…’ Frankiewicz noted the need for a ‘new approach’ to attract, recruit and retain talent… ‘We need to be builders of talent rather than consumers of work to create a workforce with the skills companies and individuals need to thrive today and tomorrow.’ Read more 2. Little Progress Retaining Students Hechinger Report article on how America’s colleges and universities continue to bleed enrollment as ‘life gets in the way’ of a degree for too many students, particularly those in greatest need of a credential, by Jon Marcus. [At Texas A&M-Texarkana], 55 percent who started in 2015 were gone by the following year… That’s up from 44 percent two years before… In all, more than a million students a year quit college, according to the consulting firm ReUp Education… Yet colleges remain focused on recruitment, ‘which they already know how to do,’ said Andrew Nichols, senior director of higher education research at The Education Trust. ‘It’s harder work to retain students.’ Read more 3. Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College Forbes column by Tom Vander Ark discussing upcoming book A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College. This new job-focused training, what Craig calls ‘last mile programs’ share six characteristics: a focus on technical skills as well as job skills; intensity of applied effort in a ‘bootcamp’ setting; demonstrated competencies rather than grades and credits; strong connections to employers; clear pathways to high demand, high wage jobs; and jobs rather than credentials as the real finish line. Read more