The Next Frontier

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It gets a little closer every day. We’ve started checking the 529 balances will a little more diligence, shopping the programs and options with a little more attention to detail. It’s coming.

We are running out of high-school content runway for E.

What comes next? Not sure. She’ll probably be 13 when it’s time to go, and I can’t send a 13-year-old off to Kegstand U. There’s no shortage of good options – distance programs, hybrid programs, dual-enrollment programs – and I don’t really worry that we’ll find a setting that works for her. What I worry about more is the message I send to them regarding the future of higher education, and how they might best leverage that future to build a future of their own.

What lies ahead for college, as most of us knew it, is unclear. For-profits like Phoenix have hopelessly diluted the value of an undergraduate degree. Tuition costs have gone through the roof. The globalization of middle-class labor means that there will inevitably be fewer such jobs available for them, and more and greater differentiation of skillsets will be necessary to hold onto dependable earning power. MOOCs will change things; they’ll become proctored more closely, accredited more quickly, accepted more easily, in their lifetimes. There will be a growing difference among words like education, knowledge, wisdom and experience. 

I can’t see the future – and it’s changing fast. That makes it difficult to help them design an educational experience that’s going to work for their lives. I may not have all the right answers, but I have a pretty good feeling what I think is going to happen – and, based on that, here is what I would tell them in terms of designing the next frontier of education in their lives.

Your learning will be a lifelong process. Today, an average worker remains in a job for an average of 4.4 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that’s a figure for all current workers; the newest members of the workforce average about half that. Do the math: that means that Millennials will have 15 to 20 jobs over the course of their working lives. Jobs are increasingly becoming gigs, and gigs are multiplying and diversifying quickly while traditional job growth remains stuck in neutral. You will be learning, unlearning, relearning your entire life – so don’t walk into this process with the expectation that a single undergraduate degree is going to take you everywhere you need to go. Keep your knees bent, from an educational perspective, and keep a MOOC account open at all times.

The system is gaming you. Game it back. Here’s the core of the game: college graduates earn more over the course of their lives than non-graduates, yet college tuition is growing faster than any other product or service inflation rate in the country. Did you see what I just did there? I created inelastic demand for something with one hand and introduced supernormal price growth with the other. If you have to have it – and you’re told every day in traditional school that you do – you’ll pay anything to get it. But wait – there’s more! For the first two years of that undergraduate experience, you’re going to be shunted off to adjuncts, TAs, grad students – anyone the university can enlist to lower the cost of delivering your education. Well, there’s a trick to countering that. Do two years at a community college (don’t tell anyone, but a CC adjunct is often just as good as, or even better than, a tenure-track adjunct), transfer your credits, cut your cost (nearly) in half, and graduate with the same degree – and, probably, equivalent or even better education. 

Learning is an investment – so buy low and sell high. The next trick is to learn a core discipline and begin differentiating your own experience by bringing in perspectives and capabilities you ‘bought’ on the cheap. I’m a finance guy by undergraduate training, a marketer by first graduate training, and an anthropologist by second. I’ve since then added some capabilities – R, Hadoop, Scrum, etc. – through layers of education bought at ever-decreasing cost (R was free). If I cost-averaged those layers of education, though, I need a higher wage to make good on my investment than someone else would with the same set of skills. So buy an unassailable core discipline, like business, engineering, law, science, or language. Then start building a diversified, extended framework of skills and abilities for nothing, and go secure a job no one else can do at a cost no one else can touch.

Learn. Make. Earn. Repeat. The era of ‘hire me, I have a degree’ is coming to an end. Tests like the CLA are only going to increase in importance over the next decade, and there’s going to be a watershed day when a major company evaluates two candidates with identical CLA scores – one straight out of Traditional U, the other off the non-traditional education track – and picks the latter. Businesses don’t want credentials; they want results. That’s going to tilt the competitive playing field in favor of makers – those that are doing what potential employers want right now – rather than test-takers. So here’s my final piece of advice: learn a new skill. Make something out of it – an app, a blog, a patent, a seminar. Anything. Leverage that to increase your earning power, either at your current employer or in a business of your own. Then do it again. And keep doing it.

Questioning the status quo led us to bring our kids home to learn with us in the first place – so I’m not surprised that we’ve begun to question other educational ‘sacred cows,’ like traditional college, too. We’re going to be encountering this particular bovine a little earlier than we thought we would, but we’re taking the same approach to sacred cow interaction we always have – namely, out here on the next frontier, the grill’s hot and the beer’s cold.

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