In February 2018, BloomBoard co-founder and president, Jason Lange, had the opportunity to speak at TEDx Wilmington. The conference theme was Education Possible and brought together educators, students, parents, and other community members to explore the positive impact that education has on young minds as well as some areas in need of vast improvements.

Below is a recording of Jason’s talk, Is College Still Worth It? which challenges the idea of the traditional college model and highlights the shift taking place in the currency of validation. Watch the video to learn why college may no longer be worth it for many of our nation’s kids and what might they consider instead.

Transcript of the TEDx Talk, Is College Still Worth It?

I grew up in a fairly average place outside Chicago. Cookie-cutter homes and sprawling suburban subdivision. When I was six years old my mom went away for a business trip and she said she’d have surprised me when she got back. Like any little kid I was super excited about getting some new toy, and so you can imagine my confusion when she reached in her bag and she pulled out a Harvard sweatshirt. Now at this point I didn’t know anything about Harvard, let alone college for that matter, but little did I know that this would actually begin years of indoctrination to the idea that college and the Ivy League in particular was the “be all end all” to success in life.

So fast-forward 30 years with all the benefit of hindsight and as a pretty average kid from Chicago I’d rarely admit that I’ve effectively won the lottery. See I was super fortunate to go to Yale for my undergrad (which I’m pretty sure I only got into because I could play football in high school) and then years later I got into Stanford for graduate school — I got a Master’s in Education, and an MBA from Stanford Business School.

So not only have I had amazing success and fortune academically despite the fact that I’ve actually racked up about $200,000 in debt along the way, but I can actually readily acknowledge that the vast majority of my success in life can in some way be linked back to the fact at the moment I got into Yale, I fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life.

I got into investment banking, which was right out of college as a psychology major, from there I got into private equity investing, from there I got into Stanford — all of which can be rooted in the fact that I had been validated by a single elite institution.

What’s surprising for me today, now 36 years old and 15 years into my career — ten of which I’ve actually been in education directly, now I’m in the middle of dealing with all the chaos that comes with having four kids of my own and thinking about their futures, is that I can almost guarantee you that not all four of my kids will even go to college.

First let me acknowledge the privilege that I have in making that statement, as a white male who’s been to these amazing schools, clearly my family will benefit from my experience. But that said I don’t think it changes the fact that over the past 15 years as technology has accelerated, our ability to do almost anything in life we’re starting to see an amazing shift take place in the currency of validation.

What do I mean by Currency of Validation?

For centuries the world’s actually been a pretty opaque place it’s not like we had any really good information to try to figure each other out no one has been following us around posting videos on the internet of everything we do until now.

This transparency has done fundamental things to change the fabric of our culture, so now you can upload and document anything you do in life almost instantaneously and turns out showing off is now the foundation of several of the world’s largest companies.

This transparency is starting to fundamentally change how we vet and assess and validate people around us. And we’re starting to see a change in the types of question we use to validate people from “Where did you go to school?” to “What have you built lately?” or “Can you show me what you’ve done?”

The shift in the currency of validation actually has fantastic implications and that can democratize expertise far greater than any time in history before. We’re moving from a place and a time we’re learning and knowledge was guarded by these reverent institutions and we’re moving to a place we’re not anyone regardless of socioeconomic status or demographic can actually set the same information at a fraction of the cost.

So I thought it’d be helpful to outline why this shift in the currency of validation is happening. Why should we now be questioning the value of college when it’s been held sacred for so long.

First is cost — the latest College Board data puts the average cost of a four-year college to be anywhere from $100,000 to a quarter-million dollars all in — and that’s only if you graduate on time. And these costs become even more dramatic if you consider them against a simple question which is “How many actual real-world skills did you learn in college that you could apply immediately in your career when you graduated?”

For instance, when I graduated with the Masters in Education, I went to become a substitute teacher for a while. And I was sort of shocked to realize that I actually only really learned three or four skills from that entire degree that were going to help me manage a classroom full of kids and the chaos and their learning.

And this actually leads to the second probably the most profound shift facing colleges
today which is the shift from seat-time based learning to competency-based learning. Seat-time based learning is the traditional model we’re all too familiar with regardless of what you actually learn what’s measured is how much time do you spend sitting in your seat.

Competency-based learning on the other hand describes the type of learning where regardless of how long you sit but it’s one hour or five hours or ten hours, what’s measured is whether you can actually demonstrate competency of a specific skill via some sort of portfolio of artifacts or documents or videos or even on the job directly — and this is actually where we can learn a lot from the research in the teacher development space where I’ve spent the past ten years of my career.

See, several years ago two amazing researchers named Joyce and Showers did a fascinating meta-analysis where they compared various types of learning to the transfer of that learning to a job application — in this case in the teaching context. What they found is in a traditional lecture environment, where we have theory and discussion that’s happening in the classroom, only about 5% of students can take that information and turn it into demonstrable new skills in that same classroom environment — lectures aren’t great. And turns out only about 0% of those students can actually transfer those skills into their actual job context down the road.

Now if you add to that lecture some demonstration, some practice, some feedback, which probably typifies 90-percent of the classes today in colleges that aren’t lectures, what they found is that you get 60% of those students can actually demonstrate new skills in that same classroom environment — which is better but not great but unfortunately only 5% of those students can actually transfer those skills to their job application down the road.

So this data has to be a little bit terrifying if I’m holding a tuition bill right now and I’m expecting to be able to transfer any of that learning into my future career.

Now interestingly enough, what the research also found is that you if you add to that learning environment an actual apprenticeship-type approach when you take a job-embedded coach who can actually give you direct feedback on what skills you’re working on in that environment, now that’s an area 95% of students can demonstrate those skills back in that classroom environment and most importantly 95% of our students can then transfer those skills in their job application down the road.

Now imagine how much our existing universities and colleges would need to change to actually make this shift to this new approach to learning happen, not to mention the sort of bridges to industry that they need to build to make it happen effectively.

So it’s really exciting that we’re right at the start of a brand new shift where a bunch of new low-cost alternatives are becoming mainstream that are directly embedded in the job market — whether it’s technical boot camps like General Assembly or Hack Reactor, or even some of the more competency-based MBA programs like Alt-MBA, or even more the tactical course marketplace is like Lynda or Udemy. All of these alternatives are not only much lower cost but they’re actually super pragmatic in terms of building the skills that employers directly value because they’re working with employers on a regular basis to make sure that their content aligns with their job postings.

What’s even more exciting is many of these alternatives are now starting to break apart the complexity of expertise and then breaking apart into much more modular pieces that make that learning much more accessible than ever before and I actually think we’re only getting started there’s no reason to think that soon enough the biggest employers in the world — the Boeings, the Toyotas, the Googles — won’t simply soon enough define what projects and skills they want to hire for and post all of that to the internet for anyone to engage with. And it seems pretty clear that they’re gonna prefer to hire people who’ve demonstrated mastery and competency in those skills than people who’ve gone through a traditional college experience.

Now I’m sure some of you would argue that a broader liberal arts education actually serves a broader purpose, a bigger purpose than skill building — primarily to inspire a level of learning. The problem here is I think it’s incredibly hard to imagine that we should or can expect any institution to inspire a level learning in just four years especially with a student population that’s so immature — no offense.

And then I actually challenge you that a true love of learning needs to be continuously developed throughout our entire lives, starting when we’re really young. And I’d be willing to bet that many of us could have actually gotten a ton more value out of the dollars we spent on college if we’d actually save those dollars and spent them several years down the road when we were a bit more mature and could actually take advantage of the learning I certainly know I would have.

The other one of the other big arguments I hear in defense of the existing system is well college is actually just a means of purchasing a network — it’s the people, it’s the alumni that matter — which is really hard to defend, it’s true and certainly for the elite schools in the top tier with their networks. They will always be able to justify their elite status by pointing to their impressive networks. The problem here once again, especially for any schools not in that top echelon is that technology is closing the gap for admission to these networks by making them much more open and accessible and specialized than ever before.

So if you want to do something in education technology you can go spend $25,000 on a Master’s in Education and it’s a great way to buy a network of a bunch of people that are really interested in that same space. But to be honest edtech, like any other industry in the world, is actually pretty tiny once you’re in it. So not only does that mean that a really broad network it’s just not that useful anymore given the demands of specialization today, but it also means that your best way nowadays to get a network into an industry is just follow all the relevant LinkedIn groups and hashtags in the space and then reach out to every CEO and thought leader to get their thoughts on whatever you’re working on.

It turns out people are much more accessible than colleges have ever been. So why does all this matter to you and if college is really no longer worth it for my kids what would I hope to do that instead — they’re not staying at home home!

I think this matters to pretty much everyone regardless of if you’re an employee or a leader or most importantly a parent, the change in this currency of validation is going to be meaningful to you and your families as employees it means we need to stop settling for jobs where we don’t feel like we’re growing because if you’re not growing I can guarantee you that many of the people you’re going to compete against for your next job are.

As leaders it means we need to stop sending our teams to conferences and workshops just to learn about new ideas that they’re never gonna implement. And we need to focus the conversations with our team on the demonstration of learning, not the consumption of it.

As parents it means we need to stop pushing our kids into activities just for the sake of activities, because going forward the depth of application is going to be so much more valuable than the breadth of participation.

We have to recognize that the world today is accelerating — moving and changing faster than ever before in history. And unfortunately the university institutions around us can simply no longer stay ahead of what’s best for our kids — many of them simply cannot or will not keep up.

Therefore as parents, it is our job, it is our responsibility, to do everything we possibly can to prepare our kids for a future that’s gonna be vastly different than the one we grew up in. A future in which the act of building and doing and creating is the most valuable currency of all.

It reminds me of my favorite Steve Jobs quote:

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use… that’s the most important thing! “

While yes, we as society have a ton of baggage that has historically limited what someone was eligible to do based on whatever level of access he or she could attain. But we’re moving to a world where the act of building and doing is no longer reserved for some entrepreneurial elite and we’re the body of skills that make up Truex tee’s is starting to be uncoupled and modulized in a way that makes it much easier and accessible than ever before.

It actually reflects probably the single greatest lesson I’ve learned in my entire life — which I didn’t perhaps learn from any particularly reverent institution, in which I now spent every day trying to teach my kids and that is, the the act of learning something new, of doing something meaningful, something different — the act of creating an expertise or building something even starting a company is no longer that hard or risky and it certainly isn’t any harder or riskier than working grueling hours for not great pay just with the likelihood of having your job outsourced to some new automation down the road.

I think we’re at an amazing moment in history and that a hundred years from now society will look back at this time and say that was the beginning that was the beginning of when the rules for success fundamentally shifted and when technology finally became good enough to us control over over each of our own destinies. We are just at the beginning and therefore as a society the single most important thing we can do as parents is to teach our kids that they can learn anything and they can do or build anything — the rest, including whether or not they go to college, will be up to them

Thank you very much.