Do four-year degree colleges serve us well after consuming formidable years of our lives and charging enormous tuitions? I used only 20% of what I learned in my engineering education.
The purpose of a university education should be to give employable skills. But according to Gallup, “only a third of students believe they will graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successful in the job market”.
College counselors will tell prospective students that highly selective ones, look for applicants who stand out, who can make a difference and who have led an inspired life.
I have been at the other end of the process: hiring college graduates. I did not expect twenty-somethings to be trailblazers. As a founder of a tech startup, I hired them because they were trainable, malleable and did not cost as much.
Why is there such a disconnect between how colleges evaluate their applicants and how employers evaluate job candidates? And, is an Ivy League degree worth sweating for?
My vice presidents were from state schools, but they worked smartly and as a team, to make the company successful and take it public — something that only 5% of startups can claim.
Out of almost 100 engineers, I interviewed and hired, the ones from top schools were not much different than engineers from local state schools.
Sara Harberson, a private admissions consultant, believes that “…it is the students who propel themselves… I have always believed that it is not where you go; it is what you make of the opportunities you are given.”
This is also my experience with my two daughters. The older one, Anneka, went to Stanford and younger one, Serena, to Berkeley. Stanford is a top private university and UC Berkeley a top state university which costs much less.
At Berkeley, the environment was more egalitarian, where students seemed free-spirited — with no sense of entitlement. At Stanford, no one knew who had been admitted on her own merit and who had been tagged as special applicants who could not be ignored by the admission officers.
Anneka, who had graduated high school with a perfect GPA, was flustered when she was unable to maintain that record at Stanford. After graduation, she was hired by a San Francisco startup after a rigorous interview. She came out of college as a somewhat stubborn pragmatist.
Soon after accepting the position at the company, she transitioned from software engineering into marketing, without knowing exactly what it entailed. She also ran their human resource department when the founder convinced her that it was like marketing, but to future employees. For a Stanford software and math graduate, that wasn’t cool.
With her well-rounded experiences, when her startup LiveRamp did well, at 29 she was promoted to co-CEO of a $200 million company. She learned to be a trailblazer through her own agility and humility — not learned at Stanford.
The younger one, Serena, is also a software engineer at a startup in San Francisco. She got an early taste of starting a company, at UC Berkeley.
After her sophomore year, she took an unpaid summer internship, on her math professor’s recommendation. The company was to build software for ‘teacher evaluation survey’.
The founder would do the coding, the math professor provide access to UC Berkeley market, and Serena would test the software and be also responsible for marketing.
Near the end of the internship, Serena’s venture capitalist dad asked her if they had talked to her about how much of the pie she would get if the company were to be successful. They had not. When she asked her professor, he thought that they should each get one-third; the founder said that 95% should go to him, 5% to Serena and nothing to the professor. The professor was mighty mad, and without him, the company fell apart!
Then, the professor invited my husband and me to campus for coffee. We were surprised to see that he treated Serena as his equal.
It is such off-classroom experiences of university campuses and their own drives that the students learn from. But what about in-class education?
Shouldn’t universities take some responsibility for teaching students to discover what they value as individuals, which will give meaning and purpose to their lives as they transition into adulthood?
Can they have effective programs to enhance how to learn, how to strive for personal growth, make decisions amongst ambiguities or make better decisions by recognizing our cognitive biases?
With their institutional knowledge and intellectual capital, universities and colleges should overhaul education to make it more relevant for employers and prepare students for future transitions into new fields with changing times.
Like employers, colleges should focus on practical qualities in their admissions, curriculum and style both need modernization, and better hand-holding by career-counselors can do wonders.
Yet, colleges continue to provide an environment for personal growth and college-education gives the best chance for socioeconomic mobility in our democratic society.