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Posted: July 09, 2013

The futurist: Who controls the education industry?

Selling classes and gaining skills are radically different

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts.)

Let’s first start off with a different question: “Who controls the bread supply in London?”

This was Jonas Eliasson's opening question in his TED talk, “How to solve traffic jams.”

As it turns out, there really is no single person responsible for making sure bread gets distributed every day in London. He used this as an example of a “self-organizing complex system.” So rather than relying on some bread czar to issue top-down edicts to make things happen, the system organizes itself.

A few months back, I was interviewed for a Canadian documentary titled “Generation Jobless” produced by Dreamfilm Productions. The core focus of this documentary was to point out the amazing number of disconnects between higher education and the job market, and why such a high percentage of young people today can’t find work. 

As an example, each year Canadian colleges graduate three times as many teachers as there are teacher openings. Many other industries have similar discrepancies with either too many or too few graduates to match industry openings.

To further complicate matters, employers are now placing a higher premium on experienced workers and are less willing to invest time and money for training new entrants themselves. With colleges only offering the training piece, graduates are left in a catch-22 situation with little opportunity to get the work experience without the opportunity to actually work.

This started me down the path of considering why London’s bread supply works spectacularly well as a self-organizing complex system, yet education does not. And it all began with the central question, “Who controls the education industry?”

Betting on Your Future Self

For most entrepreneurs, it’s very easy to determine who the customer is. It’s the person who decides to pay for the goods or services you have to offer.

But in higher education, the buyer/seller relationship gets very muddy. Students taking the course will usually pay for it eventually, but often get loans, scholarships and other forms of assistance along the way. In many respects, the future employer is the chief consumer of college output.

Whenever the purchase obligation is somehow “lubricated” either through grants, third-party payments, loans or something else, the onus of responsibility gets shifted to some future version of yourself.

Most students believe their future self will always be richer, more connected and more able to deal with financial obligations than their current self. In many cases, this is correct, but not always. As a result, it is very difficult to accurately decide what kind of pain threshold you should impose on your future self. 

When given the choice, immediate gratification almost always wins over future responsibilities. It’s very easy for a college representative to talk about the successes and lifestyles of their most prominent graduates, with the natural inference being that the only thing separating them from their much wealthier future self is signing on the dotted line.

Without accurate information about job trends, skill requirements and industry demands, students are left with very little information to make a critically important decision.

In this context, students become the ultimate risk takers, betting on themselves to develop viable, marketable skills that the world needs. 

The Five-Year Pipeline

It was five years ago when today’s college graduates decided on which college to attend and what their major should be.

This is the stark reality of the five-year educational pipeline created by today’s college and university system. Today’s colleges take far too long and are far too expensive.

The Primary Disconnect

Colleges are in the business of selling classes. Students are in the business of gaining marketable skills. These are two radically different objectives.

If colleges only got paid after students completed their first full year of work after graduating, even if only part of the tuition was withheld until then, they would quickly shift their focus from teaching what they thought mattered to what future employers thought mattered.

Every HR administrator in the country would instantly become best friends with the college president.

Today, with college loans skyrocketing out of control and the responsibility for repayment of the student loan falling solely upon the student’s shoulders without even an option for filing bankruptcy, we are forcing 18-20 year olds to make lifetime decisions without any good basis for making that call.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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