Luncheon Meats

Volume VI, #8

Based on the response to the last UV Letter, there appears to be some enthusiasm for more stories from law school. Here’s my favorite, also starring my brother Aaron.

Aaron’s a big guy (6’4”) with an even bigger heart. Back in law school, he was intensely aware of his own privilege relative to most of the residents of New Haven, and also unfailingly polite and zealous about returning favors. One Saturday evening, a few hours before our biggest house party of the year, as we were preparing to welcome most of our classmates to our drafty garret, Aaron headed to Subway for a quick dinner. The sandwich artist – Tony – was extremely friendly and gave Aaron double meat without charging for it. Grasping for some way to return the favor, Aaron mentioned our party that evening and extended an invitation with our address. He thought Tony probably wouldn’t come, but that if he did, it would be good for all of us to get a different perspective.

Three hours later, the party is in full swing and Tony shows up with his girlfriend. Our roommate Dave is incredulous, dragging Aaron aside and lecturing that Tony is his responsibility. Aaron dutifully fetches beers and sits with Tony and his girlfriend, making small talk until he’s pulled away by a classmate. Within five minutes, another classmate approaches Dave in the kitchen with some news: “David, I regret to inform you that there is a gentleman in your living room who is trying to sell luncheon meats to your other guests for 10 cents on the dollar.”

Aaron’s effort to get a different perspective that evening did not turn out well. But I’m pleased to report the opposite result for Jeff Selingo’s terrific new book, There Is Life After College, which covers a wide range of pressing issues in higher education from the perspective and for the benefit of students.


While none of the students in After College are so desperate that they’re currently resorting to selling luncheon meats at off-market prices, many are – in Jeff’s terms – “wanderers” or “stragglers.” Their condition a natural consequence of blind faith in the value of higher education, unaware of the shifting sands that are familiar to readers of the UV Letter, namely:

  • “The degree was an easily recognizable signal to employers… but today there seems to be a lot of noise interfering with that signal.”
  • “That employers need to list soft skills at all [in job descriptions] indicates an underlying anxiety many recruiters expressed: the bachelor’s degree may be the strongest signal that someone is ready for the job market, but it’s become increasingly less reliable than it once was, in part because it doesn’t indicate that students know the soft skills. The degree mostly indicates that they had the discipline to finish a task.”
  • “Having a B.A. is less about obtaining access to high-paying managerial and technology jobs and more about beating out less-educated workers for the barista and clerical job… The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma.”
  • “Graduates’ first jobs have an inordinate impact on their career path and future income stream… When students graduate from college in a weak economy, they have lower earnings even fourteen to twenty-three years later on in life. The graduating classes immediately following the 2008 recession, for instance, even now earn a third less than those who left college just a few years earlier and had a better economic footing getting started.”
  • “The collapse of American manufacturing in the 1980s left the United States with a one-size-fits-all route through college that educators continue to press on students and their families from a very young age. The college-for-all movement is not a cure-all for the Americans who never end up finishing their degree.”
  • “Career services on many college campuses are merely an add-on amenity to the bachelor’s degree, ‘somewhere just below parking’ as a matter of administrative priority, in the words of one university president.”

After College even anticipates some themes we’ve been mulling, but haven’t yet included in a UV Letter (thanks for scooping us, Jeff):

  • “Friday has become the ‘collegiate day of rest,’ with many campuses offering far fewer classes on Fridays than other days, effectively training students for four-day workweeks.”
  • “Sure, gap years are expensive, but in some cases an investment in a year off might be money saved later on if students are more directed when they eventually go to college.”
  • It’s not simply that large universities are taking enrollment from smaller ones. Location matters: urban schools located near employers (internships and jobs) are beating rural ones.

For colleges, universities and those of us invested in innovation in higher education to improve return on investment for students, the greatest value in After College is reading stories of real students facing real challenges due to our shortcomings. Jeff includes case studies of students trying to bridge the gap from school to career via course and major selection, capstone courses, gap years, internships, co-op programs while navigating debt that – as he reminds us – amounts to $380 per month for the average student starting just six months after graduation: a daunting sum for the two-thirds of graduates whom Jeff estimates fail to “launch” immediately. The stories in After College are a reminder that the decisions we make – or changes we fail to make – have a dramatic impact on the lives of millions of students each year.


As Jeff looks to the changes ahead, his outlook is similar to ours in several respects:

  • “More of our education will be ‘just in time’ rather than ‘just one time.’ And it will be delivered by a wider array of providers—the traditional colleges we have today but also emerging outfits that offer short-and long-form courses.”
  • “Colleges will likely take a cue from the Apple Store and present the best experiences they can offer on physical campuses and then move the rest online. In other words, college will become a blended experience for many students, in that it will be neither fully in person nor all online. In this new world, location will matter even more than it does today, as internships, research projects, and other types of experiential learning for students will be nearly impossible to replicate online.”
  • Finally, Jeff is optimistic about the potential of people analytics and competency marketplaces to provide a GPS for students’ human capital development and help usher in a more diverse and lower cost set of pathways to successful and fulfilling careers.

I have only one issue with After College: the wanderers and stragglers all seem to be come from the upper- and middle-income families who’ll hear about and be interested in purchasing the book rather than the true stragglers (the millions of lower-income students enrolled at state universities and community colleges who mostly fail to complete). When Jeff introduces community colleges as an option, he does so apologetically, recognizing their negative reputation. Undoubtedly, Jeff is telling stories his readers will relate to. But they’re not wholly representative nor generally applicable. For example, Jeff’s critique of structure – “colleges have… [added] a bevy of advising services and amenities for students so that essentially everything is done for them to ensure they graduate on time and secure a job afterward. Though these programs may indeed help students graduate, they prevent them from building resilience…” – is less relevant for most low-income students for whom completion without resilience would be a high-class problem. Knowing Jeff, I’m certain this direction comes from his publisher, trying to sell books to the audience that will buy them.

This issue aside, every higher education leader should read After College and assume the people paying their tuition bills are also reading it and presently will be asking questions and taking action out of real concern that their children will graduate into the straggler category and find themselves working at a Subway, if not selling luncheon meats for 10 cents on the dollar.

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. English Majors Pay More New York Times article on emergence of income-share agreements as form of student financing, by Stacy Cowley. A senior studying mechanical engineering, one of Purdue’s most popular majors, could get $15,000 in return for a commitment to pay 4.23 percent of his or her income for a bit less than eight years… But an English major can anticipate a starting salary of $34,000, by Purdue’s calculation. For that student, the school would offer a different package, which might require a higher percentage of income over a longer period. Read more 2. Failing Early and Often National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report on the 31M U.S. adults with some college but no credential, showing that only 13% are “potential completers” i.e., 60+ credits. Almost one-third of [the 31M] had only a minimal interaction with the higher education system, having enrolled for just a single term at a single institution… About three-quarters of [the remainder] attended two-year institutions either exclusively, or before or after attending a four-year institution. Read more 3. Labor Market Laid Bare Washington Center for Equitable Growth interview with Byron Auguste, Founder and Managing Director of Opportunity@Work laying the skills gap at the door of employers (i.e., changes in hiring), but acknowledging that colleges and universities have not yet adapted. It’s really striking how much the supply side—that is to say, education and training—has been relatively stable, whereas the behavior of the demand side—how employers hire and fire, who and how they train, and just everything about their HR behavior—has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. Read more