America Needs Talent(ed Leaders)

Volume V, #19

The summer is over, thank goodness. Although this may be heresy to beachgoers and people like me who enjoy the opportunity to wear white between Memorial Day and Labor Day, it has become gospel for political panjandrums. At the end of August I wrote about Donald Trump, whose appeal to the worst in human nature may be exceeded only by a handful of historical figures. But nature abhors a vacuum, and Trump has ably filled the vacuum created by a raft of uninspiring and visionless would-be leaders.

In college, I was a member of the Yale Political Union, the bastard stepchild of a real debating society, the Oxford Union. At Yale, the PU existed as a political version of Dungeons & Dragons, which for cynics provided reasonably good training for a career in government. But instead of killing monsters, the object was to run for one of a panoply of meaningless PU offices.

I headed the Progressive Party, a group that nominally followed the teachings of Teddy Roosevelt, but in reality existed to play pranks on the serious parties like the knee-jerk Liberal Party and the fascists in the Party of the Right. As our social action project one semester, we took on the graffiti painted on New Haven’s East Rock by painting it “rock color” (amazingly, the Parks Department provided the paint). In any event, when uninspiring and visionless would-be leaders sought the endorsement of the Progressive Party, we had a sophisticated system for screening candidates, like giving them a dumb dichotomy like “MSG: Madison Square Garden or Monosodium Glutamate?” (Answer: Monosodium Glutamate) Or ordering a footlong sandwich at Subway with every ingredient, with “extra” for each one of the sauces, and then informing them they needed to eat the “sandwich of life.” I’m told that after we graduated, the hazing progressed to blindfolding candidates, sticking them in the back of a U-Haul, and driving them around New Haven at breakneck speed. Perhaps similar treatment would do this lot of presidential candidates some good.


It seems like being taken seriously as a presidential candidate requires making a speech about college affordability. Just last week, Joe Biden visited Miami-Dade College to talk about the Obama administration’s plan to pay for the first two years of community college. Hillary Clinton released her plan called the New College Compact, which Andrew Kelly at American Enterprise Institute aptly renamed: Something (expensive) for everyone. As Kelly says in his review of Clinton’s plan, she “would spend $350 billion over ten years on a laundry list of priorities designed to bring the price of college down.”

There’s no question that college is expensive. But when nearly half of all students who undertake degree programs fail to complete, and where defaults are concentrated amongst non-completers, it’s hard to argue that affordability should be the end-all and be-all of higher education policy, let alone the basis for a $350 billion commitment. To paraphrase the current Secretary of Education, debt is not catastrophic if students end up with degrees.

For their part, Republican candidates are less focused on abolishing debt, and more focused on abolishing the Department of Education, the “French work week” for college students, or the “cartel” known as accreditation.

Where is the vision? Not on the campaign trail. Consider the following:

  • Approximately 70% of new jobs require a postsecondary credential; the integration of technology into everything we do has dramatically limited employment possibilities for those without the skills to exploit and manipulate technology.
  • But only 40% of U.S. adults have a postsecondary credential – compared with over 60% in countries like Canada and South Korea.
  • In 2020, of the 200M young adults around the world that will have a postsecondary credential, 30% will be Chinese and 12% will be Indian. Only 11% will be American. Among high school students and college-age young adults, the U.S. lags behind other developed countries in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.
  • While jobs have changed and now require a 21st century education, our system of postsecondary education has not changed at all. As a result, jobs and growth are likely to flow elsewhere unless we take action.

Economic growth has two ingredients: physical infrastructure and human capital. We are facing an unprecedented human capital gap that has the potential to significantly hinder economic growth. Although the political discussion to date leaves much to be desired, if we can close the human capital gap, the 21st century could become a second American century.


This is the context for an important new book, America Needs Talent, by Jamie Merisotis, CEO of the Lumina Foundation. In addition to providing inspiring stories of his family, America Needs Talent presents a clear and achievable plan for closing the human capital or talent gap. Merisotis isn’t focused on scoring political points. Rather, his plan is straightforward, won’t cost $350 billion (Merisotis describes a different $310 billion plan to improve higher education as a “fantastical number”) and capable of engendering support from all sides, perhaps even Donald Trump.

While I hope you read the book, which Merisotis helpfully divides into “Five Ways to attract, educate and deploy talent,” I summarize his recommendations into 10 achievable steps:

1.Use technology to guide students to areas that they’re strong in.
2. Focus on innovating prior learning assessment so students aren’t wasting time and money re-learning what they already know.
3. Move to competency-based learning.
4. Allow students to document and add skills and credentials of all kinds to personal portfolios.
5. Intertwine education and employment with clearly marked pathways to jobs, and with numerous on- and off-ramps. (One employer quoted by Merisotis says it as succinctly as I’ve ever heard it: “We need to know what people really know and employers need to describe what they need.”)
6. Invite new postsecondary education providers to the table: libraries, museums, for-profits (especially public benefit corporations).
7. Realign financial aid with outcomes rather than time spent.
8. Foster public-private partnerships to tap private capital to accelerate all of these changes.
9. Focus federal government energy and resources on closing the talent gap by combining the Department of Education, the employment and training administration of the Department of Labor, and the talent recruitment functions of Homeland Security’s citizenship and immigration service into a new “Department of Talent.”
10. Adopt a skills-based immigration policy (like Australia) that aggressively recruits talented immigrants and processes visas quickly.

America needs talent. And America needs leaders who understand the importance of talent to economic growth and prosperity. Maybe some party can throw a few candidates in the back of a U-Haul with copies of America Needs Talent, drive around a bit, and see if we can’t make some progress.

University Ventures (UV) is the premier investment firm focused exclusively on the global higher education sector. UV pursues a differentiated strategy of 'innovation from within'. By partnering with top-tier universities and colleges, and then strategically directing private capital to develop programs of exceptional quality that address major economic and social needs, UV is setting new standards for student outcomes and advancing the development of the next generation of colleges and universities on a global scale.


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

1. Where Has The Summer (Job) Gone? article summarizes a working paper that demonstrates a positive link between summer jobs and academic performance. At the same time, a depressing Quartz column outlines the death of the summer job as a result of isomorphism at the college level, which has infected high school as hands-on jobs are no longer sought by teens.
Participation in the summer jobs program had a "positive, albeit small, effect" on taking and passing standardized tests... Specifically, a greater number of students working summer jobs attempted to take those exams – and when they did, they performed a bit better than those who did not work summer jobs… Because participation is determined by a random lottery, we can conclude that the program in fact caused these improvements.
Read more Quartz
In the US, kids today don’t work summer jobs in high school or college—not unless they have to. According to Census data from the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, around 55% of 16-to 19- year-olds were employed each July; in 2014 fewer than 35% were…. Today, there’s more pressure to gain an edge in the brutal college admissions process and job market through enrichment activities: volunteering, summer school, and unpaid internships, which don’t count as official employment… This shift may have a long term impact on work.
Read more
2. Training Shouldn’t Be A Dirty Word Washington Monthly feature arguing for integration of technical training into college and university degree programs, by Mary Alice McCarthy. For many low-income students, spending four years in school before even starting a career is not an option. That’s part of the reason why so many low-income students end up in technical training programs—not because they are not interested in earning a bachelor’s degree, but because they need to earn a decent income along the way. Many of those technical programs lead to good-paying jobs. What they don’t lead to is a bachelor’s degree. And without a BA, there is only so far you can reasonably expect to rise in this country… It’s possible to envision a better option, one that rejects the false and damaging logic that job training and experience must always come after, not before, academic training. Read more 3. Taking Silicon Valley Billionaires Back to School TechCrunch op-ed on how technology magnates need to do a 180 if they are to practice in their support of higher education the innovation they preach in their professional lives, by University Ventures Managing Director Daniel Pianko. Silicon Valley billionaires are uniquely situated to propel innovation in higher education, not simply to use their wealth to perpetuate the status quo. Their ingenuity is needed. They should help launch a fleet of next-generation engineering universities, or help fund a new disruptive company that will move the needle on student success. Read more