Fatal Flaw: The College Degree

University College, built in 1851, the oldest building on campus.
University College, built in 1851, the oldest building on campus.

Recently I had the pleasure of joining the CityBridge Foundation for a screening and panel discussion on the documentary Most Likely to Succeed, a fantastic film about past and future of education.

As a panelist, I had a chance to pre-screen the film at my leisure and spend a few weeks noodling on the ideas presented in it. I watched the film through several lenses: as a panelist, hoping to draw out critical tidbits to share with the audience; as the CEO of a global incubator and a venture capitalist who invests in companies seeking to rethink the status quo in markets like education; and finally as a mom to a five year old just beginning his educational journey.

There is much to say about the film as it raises many excellent questions about the frightening state of our education industry - is there value in rote learning? Is the focus on standardized testing helping or hurting our students? Should we teach in structured classrooms or can project-based learning be successful? You can't watch the film without asking yourself some difficult questions about how we're teaching.

But, there is one serious question the film barely touched on that society as a whole isn't asking loudly enough: what are we teaching and why are we teaching?

Now this may seem like a silly question to ask. But is it?

The film showed a particularly fascinating scene where a group of high school students are asked whether they would rather master a particular math concept or be given the answer to the standardized test question on that topic. Across the board, the students wanted to be given the answer to the test. Their rationale? You have to do well on the test so you can get into a good college so that you can get a good job.

And there you have the underlying assumption behind our entire educational system. "A college degree is the essential credential for a young adult seeking a productive, respected career." But what if this assumption -- which used to be true -- is now, in fact, no longer true? After all, our education system was created in 1893!

In startup terms, we call this a fatal flaw. A startup is nothing but a set of ideas and assumptions. There are assumptions about who the customer might be and how they would buy a product, feature sets and how the product should be designed, pricing and how the product will be sold or bought, and so on. If an entrepreneur is wrong about some assumptions, say pricing, that is a correctable scenario because you can change the price. But if an entrepreneur is wrong about core assumptions - such as misunderstanding the scope or scale of the problem that led to starting the business - nothing else matters and the entire startup effort is likely a colossal waste of time.

As a parent of a rising kindergartener, I've wrestled with the fundamental question of the value and role a college degree might play in my five year old's life. Because if the basic assumptions are wrong, and in fact the world has changed in a way where college is no longer the pathway and marker of success it once was, then I must rethink everything about why and how I educate my son. The conversations that occupy much of today's educational debate - common core, standardized testing, test scores, SAT's, college prep - become pretty meaningless. And the education system of schools, classrooms, and curriculums may in fact be built on a fatally flawed foundation.

In the book to go along with the film, also titled Most Likely to Succeed, the author lays out a compelling, data-driven case for the obsolescence of the college degree as the golden standard of society: it's expensive, leaves a wake of debt, delivers questionable levels of actual learning, is delivered by institutions for whom educating is actually a secondary objective, and is proving to be less apt to deliver a high paying job.

Beyond that, major macro-economic shifts have already taken place in society - middle class jobs have been consistently declining and technology is permeating every industry and accelerating the jobs challenge. Today, computers can not only assemble cars, they can also drive cars, write press releases, perform accounting functions, do legal work, run warehouses, wait tables, and interact with patients. Tomorrow, there is literally no part of our economy that computers won't have disrupted.

So, what's left for the humans? Creativity. Curiosity. Collaboration. Problem Solving. Entrepreneurship. Innovation.

Our world is quickly becoming less about what you know and more about how you think and create. Yet our education system is designed to teach students to know the answer instead of embracing the curiosity and excitement of the process of finding the answer. Sadly, we can see this in a very real way in the troubling data around declining rates of entrepreneurship in the U.S. Between 1978 and 2012 the number of companies less than one year old had declined as a share of all businesses by nearly 44 percent!

As a venture capitalist, this troubles me. As a mom, this frightens the hell out of me. All of the talk about education is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, meanwhile there is an iceberg ahead.

We must stop and question the entire educational system because we're wasting time tinkering with a fatally flawed set of assumptions. We no longer live in the industrial era. College no longer means a well paying job. The jobs we used to think were good are gone.

We must start with a fresh set of assumptions that are in fact true in today's digital economy and rethink the entire system to design one that actually prepares our kids for the reality of tomorrow's world.