Trends in Education Innovation

For the last five years, Arizona State University and the education investment firm GSV Advisors have held an education innovation summit, bringing together investors and companies (ranging from small struggling startups through big dogs) to discuss trends in education, display innovative products, and, quite frankly, to do deals. This year’s summit was in Phoenix in late April. While much of the value of this summit, like many other meetings, comes from whom you bump into in the halls, some presentations are noteworthy. One of the most interesting talks was by Dan Rosensweig, former CEO of Yahoo, now president and CEO of Chegg, a California firm that specializes in college e-textbooks, tutoring, and online courses.

Based on responses from a nationally representative sample of students, faculty, and employers, the Chegg data show a mismatch in expectations about the purpose of a college education. Students asked why they decided to go to college most commonly answered:

  • To gain skills employers value and are willing to pay for (73 percent)
  • To gain greater earning potential (71 percent)

  When faculty were asked about the primary purpose of a four-year college/university education, their two most common answers were:

  • To create strong critical thinkers (80 percent)
  • To create grads who’ve been exposed to new ideas (65 percent)

Possibly, what the faculty want to create in their students will lead to greater marketable skills and earnings. But the kinds of empirical, statistical and even presentation skills that employers value (and students want most) do not usually fall under the goals articulated by faculty.

There is also a misalignment among students, faculty and employers about who is responsible for teaching students desired job skills. Almost half of faculty thought it was somebody else’s responsibility to teach students the skills they needed and wanted.

These data capture a critical juncture in higher education. Students, faced with mounting debt and a dismal job market, want their degrees to lead to economic success and security upon graduation. Faculty, deeply embedded in their professions and trained to value new ideas and critical thinking, eschew the more job-oriented goals of their “customers” (students) in favor of deep thinking.

According to the Chegg data, employers say they want students with both job skills and the capacity for critical thinking. But empirical data generated by College Measures tracking actual wages paid to graduates suggest that while employers say they want lots of different types of skills, they pay wage premiums to graduates with technical skills.  For example, graduates with degrees in philosophy, history, English, and other liberal arts are paid far less than graduates with technical skills.

To bridge the mismatch between what students, faculty and employers want, Rosensweig argues that no matter what major a student chooses, there are labor market skills that all graduates should have in their tool kits. These include fundamental presentation and data base skills that may involve nothing more complicated than mastering the programs in the MS Office suite.

Sure, making certain that students can manipulate a spreadsheet is far less fun for academics than helping students parse Proust. But faculty have a responsibility to make sure that students, who will spend years and tens of thousands of dollars in pursuit of a degree, have a shot at earning a return on their investment. If that means spending more time with the products of Bill Gates rather than works of Proust, so be it.