Volume VII, #23
We are, we are, we are but your children
Finding our way around indecision
We are, we are, we are rather helpless
Take us forever, a whisper to a scream - Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream) (1983)
This song by 80’s one-hit-wonder The Icicle Works plays over the end credits of Chapter (episode) 7 of Netflix’s smash “Stranger Things 2” – an homage to 80’s culture about the monsters that are unleashed when helpless children get hurt. Season one was about a child of divorce – Will Byers of Hawkins, Indiana – who gets trapped in the “Upside Down,” a parallel dimension full of death, along with friends and single mother (Winona Ryder) who rescue him. In Stranger Things 2, the Shadow Monster gets inside Will, and the Upside Down finds its way to Hawkins.
The creators of Stranger Things, Matt and Ross Duffer drew inspiration from Spielberg films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: “The idea was… to take what Spielberg did in the 80s… take these kind of B-movie ideas like flying saucers or killer sharks, and elevate it.” In both these films, dads have left the scene and single moms do their best to protect their children – situations based on Spielberg’s own experience (his mother had an affair with one of his father’s best friends and his dad left).
Divorce, chain-smoking, and other self-absorbed, irresponsible 80’s adult behavior set the stage for Stranger Things. But the show’s central metaphor for bad adult choices is a big government science project that removes children from their parents in an effort to inculcate psionic abilities. It’s this bad idea that literally unlocks the world of monsters.
In our family, the bad idea was succumbing to pressure from 6-year-old Zev and 8-year-old Hal – mesmerized by omnipresent billboards of the Shadow Monster – and allowing them to watch the first episode of Stranger Things 2. Although in our case the monster that was unlocked was relatively tame: a bad sleep after scared children crowded us out of our bed.
Like Hawkins, Indiana, American higher education appears to be riddled with self-absorbed, irresponsible adult behavior. Like enrolling students in degree programs they’re unlikely to complete, taking their money, and failing to provide requisite support and/or off-ramps to employment. Or failing to measure learning outcomes through assessments and/or convey the knowledge and skills of graduates to employers in a comprehensible manner. Or spending only $0.21 out of every tuition dollar on teaching and learning. Or failing to sound the alarm despite the fact that: one-third of all borrowers who graduated between 2006 and 2011 have already defaulted on their student loans; 30% of recent graduates say they’d sell an organ to rid themselves of their student loans; and whereas a decade ago, the majority of young adults in 35 states lived independently, apart from their parents, today this is true in only six states. No wonder only 38% of younger alumni think their college investment was a good one.
Or how about failing to align curriculum with labor outcomes? In an op ed last week in Inside Higher Education on how her institution was closing the skills gap and providing “long-term employability” for students, the President of Bryn Mawr provided a laundry list of who was consulted to ascertain which digital competencies students required: “faculty members, staff members, parents, graduates.” Missing from the list: employers. Like Stranger Things, it’s part comedy, part horror.
But unlike Stranger Things, one needn’t travel to the Upside Down in order to see the monsters that have been unleashed. They’re on the front page every day. The twin crises of college affordability and employability have spawned Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
On one side, higher education’s self-absorbed, irresponsible behavior has raised a monster most of us thought was dead and buried. In “Why Are So Many Young Voters Falling for Old Socialists?,” Sarah Leonard, a 29-year-old editor at The Nation, wrote in the New York Times that “Millennials are worse off than their parents were… they are loaded with college debt (or far less likely to be employed without a college degree).” She concludes that “the post-Cold War capitalist order has failed us.” But fear not, there’s a great alternative: “Because we came to political consciousness after 1989, we’re not instinctively freaked out by socialism.” She went on to cite a 2016 Harvard poll that showed 51 percent of 18-29-year-olds rejected capitalism. According to Richard Wolff, a Professor of Economics at the New School University and one of America’s few remaining Marxist economists, due to growing awareness that wages have been unable to keep up with the cost of living, younger Americans “are getting closer and closer to understanding that they live in an economic system that is not working for them, and will not work for their kids.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, Donald Trump was prescient enough to exploit the emerging anger to higher education’s bad behavior. In polls leading up to the election, support for Trump from those without a bachelor’s degree was up to 20 percent higher than for Americans with them, leading to his memorable line following his win in the Nevada Republican caucus: “I love the poorly educated.” This disenchantment with higher education has now manifested itself in the Republican House tax reform bill, which amounts to a broadside attack on colleges and universities: reducing incentives for charitable giving; eliminating the deduction for student loan interest; eliminating the Lifetime Learning Credit; taxing employer tuition assistance; taxing wealthy endowments; taxing graduate school stipends; and restricting access to the tax-exempt bond market.
Just as in Stranger Things, it may be that only children are capable of rescuing other children in peril. Too few college leaders are focused on these issues. They are undoubtedly reading college’s paper of record, the Chronicle of Higher Education, which – like the oblivious adults in Stranger Things – is preoccupied by the free speech war on campuses and continuing to litigate yesterday’s battle (already won) against for-profit universities.
Enter the kids. Except instead of Will Byers, meet Will Houghteling, founder of Strive Talent. A 20-something former Google product manager, our Will is creating a Faster + Cheaper pathway to good first jobs by combining competency-based assessments and last-mile training to scale a staffing business for entry-level hires into middle-skill jobs, initially in sales. Strive is identifying high-potential kids ill-served by the higher education establishment and leading them to economic security.
And instead of Will’s friend Dustin, meet Justin – Justin Ling. Justin is another 20-something (just named to Forbes’ list of 30 Under 30 in Education) who’s identifying talent irrespective of pedigree or degree via simulations. EquitySim has started with a simulation for financial trading, but plans to develop simulations for a number of professions where entry-level work can be simulated and assessed by employers.
Too much of American higher education is Upside Down: putting the concerns of adults – faculty, staff, boards, researchers, and sports fans – ahead of students. Will’s and Justin’s and dozens of other Faster + Cheaper pathways to good jobs are more directly responsive to the monsters ravaging Millennials than anything the adults have come up with. As in Stranger Things, sometimes it takes a kid – like older siblings Nancy and Jonathan – to save a kid.
Colleges and universities all have missions that advance knowledge, learning, and one way or another, the interests of youth. So it’s incredible to observe so many students entering college with a whisper, and exiting with a scream: kids are being harmed. I doubt Spielberg or the Duffer Brothers could come up with a Stranger Thing than that.