I’m writing this sitting on a balcony just off Bourbon Street in New Orleans, which in the middle of August is almost entirely devoid of tourists. It’s an interesting time to see it.
The last time I took a vacation, my company had zero employees and only a few more customers. Seven years later, those numbers had grown to nine and almost 250 respectively, and my business partner told me I was long past due and insisted I take the month of August off. With limited time or appetite for elaborate planning, I decided to hop in my car and take off from Boston, bound for Los Angeles by the southern route, then head up the coast to Portland before turning back east. It’s to vacations what eloping in Vegas is to weddings. I’m one week in, which is just long enough for my perspective to have shifted from daily work to my trip, even if I have answered a few emails along the way.
I set out one week ago with the hope to not only see the country, but also to meet some people outside of the northeastern upper-middle class professional milieu that I’d happily dwelled in since heading to Boston for college 18 years ago. In the ensuing years, I’d put hundreds of thousands of airline miles on, but it’s easy to go to New York, Chicago, London, Berlin, Tokyo, and San Francisco without ever really leaving that bubble. You get glimpses of what’s outside reading the news, and to be sure, nobody except bankruptcy lawyers and short-sale specialists has had a particularly easy time of it the past few years. But it takes time to really get outside of it. I’m not about to pretend that after a few days and a half-dozen conversations with strangers with new accents I suddenly understand it all. Yet, it’s already giving new urgency to some things that have been on my mind for a while.
It’s not news that this past recession is amounting to more than a temporary dip in the long march to ever-greater prosperity, to a shift to some new configuration of the economy. While the housing market continues to dominate discussion, I’m becoming convinced that more than any other single factor, what lies at the heart of this is our system of higher education. The line from education to the fundamental distribution of wealth and opportunity runs straight through your HR department.
To put it bluntly, I’m starting to think that college, which since WWII has functioned in America as a gateway to higher prosperity for children of working- and middle-class parents, is becoming the enforcer of a class system the impenetrability of which would impress the residents of Downton Abbey. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a business that’s grown for eight consecutive years, and for the past two I’ve hired a number of entry-level people, mostly one or two years out of college. Like many companies, we focused our recruiting on a handful of alumni networks that have consistently delivered excellent candidates who’ve succeeded as part of our team.
I have no regrets about a single one of those hires, but along the way, I’ve also wondered about the people who would never show up on our radar screen, not because they had no talent or potential, but because they couldn’t afford it. I met one of those people in a laundromat in Asheville, NC, a funky and vibrant miniature city that feels more like Cambridge, Mass. or Portland, Ore. than some place nestled deep in the heart of the hillbilly country. He was in his late twenties, and worked in hospitality, but he really wanted to be a recording engineer and producer. He’d managed to talk his way into a few internships which gained him experience that led to paying work. But with recording budgets in the music industry dropping for all but the Lady Gagas and Trace Adkins of the world, long-term work was scarce. “But I’m one of the lucky ones,” he said. “I never went to college for it, so I don’t have any debt to pay off.”
The cost to attend my alma mater, where we’ve sourced many great candidates, today amounts to nearly a quarter of a million dollars, roughly double what it was when I entered in 1994. While that’s an example drawn from the top of the pyramid, costs have inflated similarly all the way down. While colleges may make sincere attempts to provide scholarships and recruit a racially- and ethnically-diverse student body, prices like that are inevitably building a system that strongly advantages students from wealthy families.
Colleges, for their part, have thus far proven to be like obese diabetics heading for a Vegas buffet. If the growth in costs beyond inflation came from hiring more or better faculty it might be excusable, but the truth is almost the opposite, as multiple studies have shown that administrative costs per student have grown far faster than instructional costs over the past 10-20 years. Meanwhile, a visit to almost any “better” college will likely reveal a cornucopia of grand new buildings, whose main purpose is to attract the sort of students whose parents can afford the tuition. When pressed on the issue, colleges have mostly responded by calling for more financial aid, which at this point is beginning to sound like realtors calling for the Fed to keep rates low.
None of this would matter if not for the fact that while ambition and persistence can get your foot in many doors, a college degree is still the gateway to employment in a vast swathe of the professional workforce, in the sort of companies and roles that help to build a strong resume for future growth. For companies, the reason is simple: with an entry-level candidate it’s often all you have to go on, and all things considered equal, people who persist to get good grades and complete degrees are displaying traits that suggest they might be equally driven and diligent about their jobs. But as the cost of college grows, it’s also becoming a selector for the socioeconomic status of ones’ parents. And if the only way you get into white-collar America is by being the child of white-collar parents, then we will have lost what makes America special, as surely as if a politician put match to the Constitution.
Fortunately, we are beginning to see signs of new solutions. At one end, Texas governor Rick Perry called last year for his state’s schools to find ways to offer bachelor’s degrees for $10,000–total–and at least one has found a way, with a variety of other Texas colleges offering degrees for slightly more. At the other end, a rapidly-growing field of startups (http://gigaom.com/2012/06/22/
But all of this innovation will be for naught unless recruiters and hiring managers adapt with it. A 4-year degree, particularly from a well-known school, is something everyone understands. The alternatives to that extremely-costly sheepskin are likely to come from institutions that are less well-known, and in new forms than a bachelor’s degree. Nor is a healthy skepticism entirely misplaced: a number of early online degree programs have come under fire for offering bogus degrees based on tests of “lifetime experience,” and these are scams against students as much as employers. But as an employer, are you looking for a new hire who spent four years of his or her life sitting in the shade of old trees and brick buildings draped with ivy, or are you looking for someone smart, trainable, and persistent? Soon, the best candidate may come from a place you least expected–and if you don’t hire them, then one of your competitors surely will.