+ College library with arching windows on either side. Students studying at long tables.

The Problem with a Jobs-Obsessed Higher Education

The Higher Education industry is hyper-focused on justifying the cost of education with how it correlates to the jobs graduates get. Along those lines, credentials and micro-credentials are a craze right now. Executive leaders have come to believe that credentials are the key to the future. And they very well may be right.

When I was in graduate school, I remember being bent out of shape that I was paying a lot of money for my education only to have to pay some third party to study their content so I could earn their certification that would ostensibly provide me with the requisite skills for the job market. I even remember having a conversation with a faculty member about it. 

“Why can’t we just earn the credential here and make that count toward my degree?” I asked. 

“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve talked about it, but there’s really nothing we can do about it.”

Well, now there is, and that’s good news for students. Some universities are integrating credentialing into their degree programs. It’s a great idea and a long time coming.

We should embrace this new benefit. It’s good for students and it’s good for employers. But we should pump the breaks on the crusade to measure education by job-placement or earning power. These are not the only metrics for evaluating the value of an education. They are just seemingly easy ones. It’s tempting to say that the return on investment for an education is how much money you’ll earn as a result of that education, because it’s such a simple quantification. It’s the obvious solution to finding a way to justify the out-of-control costs of higher education, but there are many factors to keep in mind when thinking about the value of education. Below are just a few.

It Ain’t the Degree, It’s the Pedigree

One, there may be a correlation between where a person goes to school and how much they earn afterward, but that may not be a true indication of the quality of the education they have received. For instance, the Wall Street Journal/College Pulse rankings puts Princeton in their top spot due in large part to the metric of “how much it will improve the salaries they earn after receiving their diploma.” But what if—and hear me out here—what if there were firms hiring Princeton grads at high salaries simply because they were Princeton grads and not because they showed any particular promise or skillset inherent to the education they received at Princeton. I don’t mean this as a slight to Princeton or its grads. Nor do I mean to critique the Wall Street Journal/College Pulse folks who make it clear that their ranking is just one way of helping consumers make a decision, and that it is hardly the last word on the matter. I only mean to point out that it’s important to recognize that pedigree still carries a lot of weight in our culture. That can muddy value determination.

Don’t Distract from the Real Problem

Justifying high costs of education by pointing to earning power sidesteps the real problem: the high cost of education. In our breathless struggle to show that college is worth it, we lose sight of what we should really be trying to do, which is making college more accessible, chiefly by making it more affordable.

Employers Don’t Always Know What’s Best for Them

Yes, credentials are helpful for your career. But do you know what’s even more helpful? Knowing how to think critically and solve problems on your own or with a team. Those skills are harder to teach in the workplace than technical or “hard” skills. Human skills or competencies like attention to detail or taking initiative are what students will not learn from Higher Ed institutions that obsess over providing the right badges or credentials that students can put on their resumes and profiles. Employers can be meticulous about making sure all the technical skills they think people need before they are hired are covered in a job posting, and then they lament the fact that all their new hires don’t know how to communicate with co-workers or manage their own workload. Those are the competencies that people should have been learning in college, rather than focusing solely on collecting a menagerie of digital badges. Here’s a tip: if you want people who are change agents and innovators, you’re not going to find them by filtering for certifications in cloud programming.    

College is about More than Job Prep

We do not know what tomorrow will bring, no matter how much we would like to believe otherwise. The skills needed today are not the skills we will need in four years. It would make more sense that employers teach people the skills they need today. What higher education has done well historically is teach people how to be good learners, problem solvers, and innovators. Learning by rote is not useful in a highly agile work environment.

Getting stuck in a frame of mind where Higher Education strives to be a pipeline for what employers think they want today is a trap.

To be clear, I strongly believe employers still have an obligation to develop competencies like communication, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and many others, but that will be a much heavier (and more costly) lift if people don’t enter the workforce with at least a foundational comprehension of human development.

Higher education is about higher learning. That is, it’s about thinking on a higher level. Getting stuck in a frame of mind where Higher Education strives to be a pipeline for what employers think they want today is a trap. It ends up focusing all the attention and resources on the disciplines that seem to, on a superficial level, supply the technical skills needed for the workplace of the present, and thereby neglects the disciplines that develop the competencies and skills that consistently produce the best actual thinkers, innovators, and change agents.

People who are not great thinkers or visionaries love to minimize the value of disciplines like philosophy, music, languages, or anything in the arts. Like bullies, they get their false sense of power by pushing down other people. The truth is those disciplines are the disciplines that drive the future, because those disciplines teach people how to see things from different perspectives, understand the world in a different way, examine how human beings communicate and think, and everything else that really makes the world tick. That scares some people because it means the world is way more complex and nuanced than anything that could be reflected in a badge or certificate. If that’s true, how will we measure what’s really important? How will we know what the future will bring? How will we prepare for tomorrow?

I think those kinds of questions are maybe the very problem. The point of Higher Education is not to prepare for tomorrow. The reason we ever even started this bold and audacious venture of developing great thinkers was not to prepare or respond to what’s going on now. The point of Higher Education is to drive tomorrow. It is to develop people who create the future. It is to instill in people moral and ethical character, passion, empathy, and curiosity. When we lose sight of that, we lose sight of the true value of Higher Education.


Create a Growth Mindset Team

The trick to having a growth mindset is knowing when to throttle down. How we learn, problem-solve, and just generally think effectively is a process. Sometimes we respond impulsively, making quick decisions based on assumptions, past experience, and urgency of the matter at hand. This can work out fine. Often it doesn’t. Gnarly problems and challenging issues require deeper concentration and prolonged effort. 

People may try to truncate the time it takes to go through this process by pushing through moments when they are feeling exhausted or frustrated. They can experience decent results early on, but when they start to see diminishing returns on their effort, they double-down—increasing their effort and trying harder, hoping to improve efficacy. The result is inevitably disappointment and frustration.

People who are effective problem-solvers and learners know that powering through when you hit a wall is counter-productive. They know that when you feel depleted, the worst thing you can do it is try to push through it. Instead, they take a beat, walk away, reenergize. And then they come back and try again.

Claude Debussy famously said, “Music is the space between the notes.” This is true of innovations and discovery, too.

When we’re learning something new that is completely foreign to us or trying to solve a problem that we have no experience or context to apply to finding a solution, we can hit that fatigue line pretty quickly. People with a what Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset will take that early fatigue or frustration a sign that they just can’t do it. When they hit the fatigue line, they quit altogether. Or, they keep trying when they don’t have any more fuel in the tank, and use their inability to function as evidence that they are incapable of the task at hand. They give up on the whole thing.

People with a growth mindset, recognize that early frustration is normal and part of the process. They step away and come back later, gradually building up their tolerance as they make new neural connections and increase their skill level. Eventually, they may even reach a state that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls Flow, that almost transcendental intersection where highly challenging work meets highly skilled effort, and you experience intense focus and even joy.

This counter-intuitive approach to productivity is true for organizations and teams, too. If there is not capacity for a team to throttle down to digest the data or content they are consuming, there will be no progress. Moreover burnout is commonplace and turnover is high. Management might make the mistake of thinking it’s just the nature of the business to burn through people quickly or that good help is hard to find. It’s more likely the organization itself has a fixed mindset. Leadership has not developed a structure that fosters a growth mindset.

Claude Debussy famously said, “Music is the space between the notes.” This is true of innovations and discovery, too. The notes and silence exist in unity. They are nothing without each other. The process of thinking, learning, problem-solving, need those spaces in between. Without them, it’s just noise.

Build in those moments of contemplation and wonder, for yourself and your whole team.Take a moment. Give a moment. It makes all the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.


The One-room Schoolhouse Workplace

Visionary and effective leaders want people on their teams and in their organizations who are hungry to do more, hungry to innovate, and hungry to learn. If you want those people in your organizations, you better be ready to feed them. Providing meaningful and impactful learning opportunities for a workforce is the most powerful way to engage high performers and keep them engaged.

While workplace learning has been around for a long time, we are at an inflection point in our collective organizational development. With the constant, rapid, and continuous change facing all industries, we are overdue to disrupt how we learn in the workplace so we can face the unique challenges of tomorrow.

The way we can do this is by bringing the one-room schoolhouse approach to learning in the workplace. In his book The Education Myth, John Shelton points out that when our education system was first being developed in the U.S., it was a way to teach people to be discerning citizens. We wanted to show people how to read, think critically, and problem solve. It was a way to prepare for an unknown and exciting future. When those one-room schoolhouses started sprouting up in rural communities across the country, they were a way to bring children together so they could not only learn from the teacher, but also learn from each other. 

Today, we look at education quite differently. We are told to justify the need for education by equating it with job creation. Education today is reactive to the current and foreseeable future.

One of the concerning things about this reframing of education is that, for some, it implies the following logic: If education is preparation for work, then once we are working, education is no longer needed. While not many people would recognize or admit to this logic, the opinion that there is no place for learning in the workplace is prevalent. This results in a cold, unproductive, and toxic work environment. 

In these One-Room Schoolhouse Workplaces, we come together to learn from each other, break down silos, hear from different perspectives and disciplines, and share experiences.

A One-Room Schoolhouse Workplace revives the spirit of learning together back into our organizations. By teaching people fundamental concepts like critical thinking, problem solving, communication, and how to learn, we not only create a healthier and more productive workforce, we also have the opportunity to create community, something we are painfully short on these days. Even before the most acute stage of the COVID pandemic, Cigna was reporting that 61% of adults were lonely. Airspeed reports that over 70% of workers when working remotely are not interacting as much as they would like.

In these One-Room Schoolhouse Workplaces, we come together to learn from each other, break down silos, hear from different perspectives and disciplines, and share experiences. Group learning creates a unique opportunity to learn from one another, exercise values, and define what it means to be part of the workplace community. As Robert Waldinger of the Harvard Study of Adult Development puts it, “Personal connection creates mental and emotional stimulation, and those things are automatic mood boosters.” 

This is how we can get back to true innovation and continuous improvement. Great minds demand engaging environments. The single most powerful way to create those engaging environments is through recreating the vibrant and challenging spirit of the one-room schoolhouse in the workplace. This learning culture can have drastic positive effects on organizations. Deloitte Insights find that a learning culture can increase retention rates by 50%, help with new product development, increase productivity, and improve profit. That’s a might big return on investment for something that’s just a fundamentally good thing to do for the people who work for your organization. 

Here are some examples of how you may already be applying the concept of The One-Room Schoolhouse Workplace:

  • Communities of Practice
  • Reading Groups
  • Restorative Circles
  • Mentorships
  • Peer-led Workshops
  • Team Lunch & Learns

What are some other examples? What can we do to foster The One-room Schoolhouse Workplace to help enrich the lives of more people in all types of workplaces around the world?


Mentorship May Be More Complicated Than You Think

I believe in the power of mentorships. I also believe that people can vastly underestimate the complexity of what it takes to match a protege (or mentee) with a mentor, or they may have a fundamental misunderstanding of what a mentorship is. 

A mentorship is a special relationship. It requires the mentor to have gone through the same path (typically a career path) that the protege seeks to follow. From that foundation a partnership is built of respect, admiration, vulnerability, and a long list of other hard to come by qualities. It can also be useful if the mentor has comparable life experiences as the protege, as our professional lives do not exist in a vacuum.

Sometimes programs that are billed as mentorship programs are not really about mentorship, but rather an extension of or variation on an orientation program. They are a way to help new or less experienced people get better knowledge of the organization. The people who are given the title of mentor in these programs are only there to show someone else the ropes. Rather than having powerful and meaningful conversations about growth and development as a professional, the “mentors” give tips on how to navigate the idiosyncrasies of their firms. They might say things like, “Don’t send the requisition form to Paul despite what the routing tells you to do. If you need it fast, send it to Lana.” Or, “It’s best to park on the east side of the lot even though it’s a longer hike in. At least your car won’t be an oven by the end of the day.”

When done right, mentorship programs can help establish a culture of fellowship and collegiality.

While this kind of information might be useful, it’s not what mentorships are about. A mentor provides deeply meaningful advice based on their own experience or relays anecdotes about how they succeeded or failed in a given situation. This can help the protege make their own determinations about how they will proceed. 

Sometimes a mentor may just serve as a sounding board—not really providing any solutions or suggestions to a problem. Instead, just being there to empathize with a difficult situation. For a protege having someone who will listen and not judge can be priceless resource. 

It’s a good idea for mentors and proteges to talk about what the goals are for the relationship on a regular basis. Be sure to set parameters, too. You don’t want to slip into problems outside of scope. For example, a mentor who is helping a protege with their career, probably doesn’t want to start hearing about marital problems or how frustrating the dating scene is these days. 

Mentors should always keep learning. Think about how you can improve as a mentor and develop competencies that will help you be the best mentor you can be. Journaling can be a good tool for keeping on top of this.

If you do have a successful mentorship program in your organization, your coordinator of that program deserves high praise. 

I believe mentorships are best handled organically and over time. A protege in need often gravitates to a mentor they admire and respect. The relationship builds from there, sometimes without anyone ever having to use words like “mentor” or “protege.” 

For the reasons above, it is exceedingly difficult to manufacture mentorship relationships. Because of the complexity, there is a certain level of liability to consider here. People who are not trained to be mentors can say and do things that could be damaging or hurtful to a protege. 

That is not to say effective formalized mentorship programs are impossible. If you do have a successful mentorship program in your organization, your coordinator of that program deserves high praise. When done right, mentorship programs can help establish a culture of fellowship and collegiality. 

Alternatively, leadership might consider establishing a culture of mentorship by teaching people how to be effective mentors and proteges (without the match-making service). Keep someone on staff trained on how to advise mentors in difficult situations. Creating this culture will help foster mentorship relationship organically. After all, mentorships often happen with people who are not in the same organization, so creating this culture that encourages mentorships rather than manages them, allows these relationships to form with a broader, more diverse population. 

When it works, mentorships can be a great experience. That said, they’re not for everyone, or sometimes people just are not in a good place to be in a mentorship at a given point in their lives. Mandating them or trying to manufacture them can backfire, especially in an already dysfunctional environment. As you consider mentorships for yourself or your organization, carefully consider the power of them—good and bad.


Powerless: The Devastating Effects of Not Being Heard at Work

There are a lot of reasons that people get burned out at work. Mostly it boils down to a lack of agency. When people feel like they have no real control or ownership over their own jobs, it becomes debilitating. 

There is an issue closely related to this lack of agency problem, but different enough that it’s useful to call it out explicitly. It’s the problem of feeling powerless to affect change, despite having the vision and know-how to make a real difference. People who are passionate about what they do are especially susceptible to it. 

You’ve gained experience and paid your dues. You have innovative ideas that could have a groundbreaking impact. But there are no channels for you to get these ideas to leadership and decision-makers. On the contrary, the system is set up to ensure that you do not have access to those people in power. 

This can happen easily in large, sprawling organizations, but it also happens in smaller organization with imperious power differentials. Here leaders construct an echo chamber around themselves, and that insular group of people is aggressively protective of their inner circle. They may not be conscious of it, but any hint that someone outside the circle might have transformative ideas, devalues the circle. 

The only way big ideas get through to the circle is through a consultant—usually a very expensive consultant who may gather their ideas from those passionate high performers throughout the organization. Those ideas are then repackaged and presented to leadership as their own recommendations. 

If a product or service gap is perceived through the consultation process, it is not uncommon for the circle to create a whole new executive-level position and hire someone from outside to spearhead addressing that gap. Why don’t they call on their own experts? Taking this route, after all, is incredibly costly. 

They don’t look for solutions internally because they cannot see from the inner circle those people who are eager to innovate and have more insight to the matters at hand than anyone else possibly could. 

The real solution is in the hands of leaders.

The walls those in the inner circle have put up prevent them from seeing the talent they have internally. From their perspective, the people doing the work in the organization are a kind of vague blur. Moreover, by hiring from the outside, they can maintain the illusion of the all-knowing inner circle.

The effect this callous behavior has on other people is devastating. It crushes people’s spirit and demoralizes them. 

One might say that the solution is for those passionate people to leave that toxic organization. Become that important executive another organization is hiring. But it’s not that easy. What if the organization whose leadership is blind to your value really means something to you? Maybe you’re not crazy about the leaders, but what the organization does, what it produces, what it gives to the world is meaningful to you. You don’t want to leave because you believe in its mission.   Or you have invested your career there. Or your pension and insurance for your family is tied to that place. 

The real solution is in the hands of leaders. This isn’t easy either. It requires self-awareness and vulnerability on the part of leaders. Nonetheless, as a leader, it is what you must do. Be proactive about breaking down walls. Make yourself accessible. Open channels of communication. Reach out to people who are passionate about what they do. Yes, it can be intimidating. Yes, it will make you feel vulnerable. But that’s what real leaders do. True leaders do not close themselves off from the people they are leading. They open themselves up.