Volume VIII, #5

Ian Faith: The Boston gig has been cancelled…
David St. Hubbins: What?
Ian Faith: Yeah. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. It’s not a big college town.
- This is Spinal Tap

Of the dozens of brilliant moments in Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner’s masterful rock parody Spinal Tap, my favorite is an ambitious plan gone awry. Faced with a case of the drabs on their U.S. tour, lead guitar Nigel Tufnel suggests reviving a number with “the best production value we’ve ever had on stage”: Stonehenge. “But we haven’t got the equipment,” responds lead singer David St. Hubbins, referencing the 18-foot high monoliths. Nigel does a quick sketch on the back of a napkin and then manager Ian Faith, with a show of bravado that’s a clear warning sign to anyone who’s ever been around the music (or higher education) business, snatches the napkin and tells the band to “consider it done.”

The problem, of course, is that Nigel’s sketch showed the monolith 18” high, which the artist took (correctly) to be 18 inches rather than 18 feet. And so as the band takes the stage with great anticipation, and Nigel attempts to set the scene in his druidic cloak, the number is marred not only by the appearance of the mini-monolith, but also by Ian’s addition of dancing dwarves to make the prop appear larger.

The band’s disappointment reminds me of what many college graduates feel when they hit the labor market. After spending four-plus years and incurring an average of $37k in student loan debt, the monolithic jobs they expected on the other side of college look more like 18-inch high jobs. Their degrees are “in danger of being crushed by a dwarf,” which “tend[s] to understate the hugeness of the object.”


One of the most overlooked aspects of contemporary American higher education is how the largest employer of new college graduates is a rental car company. Enterprise Rent-A-Car expects to hire 8,500 newly minted grads this year: 70% more than the next largest employer. Enterprise hires into its management training program, and while there’s no question that there’s real training going on, based on comments posted on Glassdoor, the work that new grads do doesn’t seem to require much higher level thinking. New hires are working 50 hours a week at Enterprise branches dealing with customers, answering the phone, and “selling insurance that no one wants to buy” (even – especially – people who work for insurance companies). They’re “dealing with people who don’t meet the underwriting guidelines or who damage the cars and then throw a fit and complain to corporate or social media and basically you have to bend over backwards to make it ‘right’ with the customer despite them damaging your car.” They also “must be willing to wash cars in dress clothes.”

I don’t blame Enterprise for taking new college grads, putting them on minimum salary for exempt workers, and working them hard. They’re getting good talent and long hours for not a lot of money. And I agree it’s generally a good idea to learn a business from the ground up, working your way up the ladder; Enterprise’s CEO started in the management training program. But let’s face it: only a small fraction of this year’s 8,500 new hires will make a career at Enterprise. More important, while dealing with unruly customers is an important life skill, this is frontline service work that responsible high school graduates (or students) could do. It’s not dissimilar to the experience I had in high school as a busboy and waiter.

The question is not these are worthy jobs that should be accorded respect. They are and they should. The question is whether you should need a bachelor’s degree – and its baggage, and financial detritus – to do them. The answer is no. Enterprise is not hiring new grads because they’ve taken Find-The-Dent 101. Enterprise is using college degrees as a screening mechanism. Because completing college requires persistence and some modicum of cognitive skills (and typically – increasingly – family support or wealth), hiring 8,500 college graduates won’t only yield more effective worker bees in the immediate term, but also probably more leaders of the organization in the long run than if they’d hired 8,500 random candidates.

But the big change for college grads isn’t Enterprise; its hiring strategy has remained constant, although the scale is now much greater. The reason the Stonehenge feeling is so common among college grads is the rise of entry-level jobs that – while office jobs – are better described as “new collar” than white collar. This is due to the thorough digitization of the enterprise over the past decade and the proliferation of SaaS platforms to manage practically every business function across every industry. There are horizontal SaaS platforms for job functions like supply chain, sales, marketing, customer service, finance, IT, and HR. And there are vertical SaaS platforms to manage industry-specific functions in insurance, healthcare, and yes, in higher education.

So whereas a decade ago, an entry-level sales job required a reasonable level of independent thinking (i.e., What call should I make next? What pitch should I make?), today nearly every step is mediated, prescribed, tracked, and often corrected by Salesforce. Bob LaBombard, retired CEO of Avenica and entry-level hiring expert, says that the omnipresent SaaS platforms “tend to discourage independent thinking.” Like other SaaS platforms, Salesforce defines and restricts the span of responsibility and decision making. Which explains why less than one-third of Millennials feel their job is making full use of their skills. It’s not work that a monkey could do, but – as with washing cars in dress clothes – it’s hard to argue that doing it well requires a college degree.

Whether we’re talking about Salesforce jockeys or Enterprise management trainees, do we really think that college grads who are successful in these jobs would have been less successful if they’d spent the prior four years working elsewhere rather than attending college? Or even if they’d started in this same job four years earlier? If either are true, graduates have a negative ROI from their investment in college tuition, fees, room and board. And this is why Millennials are indebted, disillusioned, and – if polls are to be believed – ready to give up on capitalism. Salesforce jockeys struggling to pay back student loans have become Bernie Sanders jockeys.


No one knows who they were, or what they were doing
But their legacy remains, hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge
- This is Spinal Tap

I’m not suggesting it would be a good idea to reduce our level of postsecondary education – in aggregate or per capita. That would be economic suicide and potentially calamitous for young people as they search for their second, third, or fourth job. What I am arguing for is a radical restaging of how we consume higher education. We shouldn’t be forced to eat it all in one sitting. It’s got to shift to what we need when we need it – hopefully before our full-employment economy takes a turn for the worse, which means underemployment of new grads will be joined by its evil twin: unemployment.

The answer must be faster + cheaper pathways to first jobs, followed hard upon by secondary and tertiary pathways to further cognitive skills and help young workers move on and up in a better-informed and targeted way. It’s taken the college affordability crisis and the rise of car washing and SaaS-dictated entry-level jobs – not to mention the disillusionment of a generation – to begin to understand the scope of the challenge.

What these examples show is that jobs aren’t binary. There isn’t a set of jobs for college graduates that is fundamentally distinct from other jobs. There’s a continuum. So why isn’t there a continuum of preparatory postsecondary programs? Attempting to create this continuum will be heavy lifting for America’s colleges and universities. It’s not just a matter – as Spinal Tap bass player Derek Smalls suggests – of fixing the choreography and keeping the dwarf clear.

In a recent survey by the British Royal Mint, Stonehenge beat out the White Cliffs of Dover as England’s “most famous southern landmark.” That shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s human nature to privilege the man-made monumental. Degrees are the man-made monumental monoliths of higher education. They attract a lot of visitors (and – like Stonehenge – some weirdos). But they’re out of proportion to most of the jobs new graduates are getting. One day we’ll look back and wonder how the system seemed to last nearly as long as Stonehenge. Who perpetuated this? To which the answer may be: “No one knows who they were, or what they were doing…”

I’ll give the last words to our friends from Spinal Tap:
Ian Faith: I really think you’re just making much too big a thing out of it.
Derek Smalls: Making a big thing out of it would have been a good idea.

Nigel Tufnel: It really puts perspective on things, doesn’t it?
David St. Hubbins: Too much. There’s too much &$*#%! perspective now.


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

1. “The Shake-Out Is Coming” Wall Street Journal article on how colleges and universities that fail to prepare students for employment are “seeing the first signs of a death spiral,” by Doug Belkin. Schools like Edinboro University (1022 on the WSJ ranking) in northwestern Pennsylvania are scrambling... Between 2011 and 2016, first-year enrollment has plummeted to 1,051 from 1,482 and the faculty shrank by nearly a quarter... [In contrast] Clemson’s success is tied to its embrace of the labor market… The school has several corporate partners and has tied curriculum to their needs. “Our students get jobs, we put successful people out there and that is well known.” Read more 2. What Income Premium? The Economist concludes that governments have overestimated the economic returns of higher education. An analysis by The Economist of American labour-market data finds that since 1970 the share of workers with degrees has increased in virtually every occupation. But in around half of occupations with better-educated workers average wages have still fallen in real terms. The ubiquity of the degree means that for many workers going to university is more of an obligation than a choice… The expected economic returns of a university education for average students are far lower than commonly understood. Governments are right to fret about training future workers, but they should look beyond just universities. Read more 3. Struggling Millennials Inside Higher Education profile of Millennials struggling with postsecondary education and work, from the perspective of a doctoral candidate at University of North Texas who spent two weeks as an Uber driver, by Amanda Jackson. In just two weeks, I met so many young people struggling with moving from difficult pasts to happier futures, and very few of them had the resources, information and/or knowledge to change the course they were currently on -- through no fault of their own. Read more