The ROI of a College Education

It is graduation time for the University of Vermont this weekend. As I was flying back from Kalamazoo, MI this week I happened to sit next to a nursing Professor who was headed to give a talk at the university. We got into a good discussion about higher education and the challenges it faces. Many of her nursing students aren’t finding good jobs in this economy and she sees major implications for hospitals as our population continues to age.

I can only imagine that nursing students are in a better position than the Liberal Arts graduates from UVM (which I was one of) this weekend. As a Vermont business leader looking to hire newly minted college graduates we face a host of challenges. While there are many smart and talented students many of them are woefully lacking basic business skills that we need as a software company. They can’t write a decent email let alone a full memo. Presentation skills are low. Excel and Powerpoint are at a basic level. Liberal art students have no exposure to any mid level skill sets such as Google Analytics , HTML, CSS, pivot tables, or CRM systems.

A four year out of state UVM education will run you $165,832 and the debt load if you financed it all would run you around $1964 a month! Which is why most of my young staff work two jobs to make ends meet. Somewhere along the line Universities lost their way. We now have a system that churns out students that are under skilled compared to their graduating peers we employ in Romania and India where we have some 200+ staff members. We typically employ 3-6 interns a semester and many of them we make job offers to as they get the basic skills needed post internship. It amazes me how few UVM students apply. Compared to the number we get out of state from say Clarkson or Boston schools.

As a country we need to have a debate on Higher Education and the return on the investment. UVM has a beautiful new Student Center that cost $61 Million to build. Was it worth the extra debt load placed on students? Would that money been better spent making sure they all had laptops with excel and paid internships? There are no easy or quick answers here but I take heart in efforts like MIT’s OpenCourseWare. Post WWII higher education has been a key driver of equality and prosperity of our country. I look forward to the debate that is emerging about how we regain our leadership in education so that the return on a $165,832 education is worth the debt load on our young.

PS: If you are a current or graduating UVM student looking for work/internships I continue the tradition set by my legend of a boss at MTV that my door is open for advice Friday mornings pre 8:30 am. Just drop me an email or Twitter DM. I don’t respond on LinkedIn.

2 thoughts on “The ROI of a College Education

  1. With all due respect, sir, universities do not teach “business skills” because the business world is so complex, so varied, and has so many contradictory pressures that the “skills” are undefinable.

    Take your example of “email”. It’s never been the university’s job to teach spelling and grammar, where in most business contexts correct spelling and grammar can’t hurt…unless, of course, you are writing as a salesperson to a powerful but dyslexic CEO who is offended by correct spelling and grammar (and, such men exist).

    Beyond this, a guy like me, with long “experience” writing emails (where the very phrase, “long experience writing emails” is very strange and makes me feel rather like Herman Melville’s Bartelby) could I suppose tell some cautionary, and therefore educational, tales.

    But there is nothing like a Pure Theory of Email that an accredited university could teach.

    Now, as to software. I have thirty years of real experience in software development and I’m the author of “Build Your Own .Net Language and Compiler” (Apress, May 2004). And ever since the days of room-sized mainframes with 8K storage, I have heard business guys complain that university graduates fail to grok the language *du jour*, be that RPG or PL/I in 1970, or Ruby today.

    Theoretically and in the opinion of the computer science and math profs, all computers are Turing equivalent (having been proved so by Alan Turing way back in 1936), therefore it’s best to learn a slow-growing corpus of good theory and praxis in a relatively arbitrary language. Then, it is in theory a simple matter for the business that’s using a different language to throw a manual at a recent graduate during his internship or on the first day of work.

    IF the recent graduate is a “geek”, such that he’s not been socialized into laziness and passive-aggression by the university system, and retains enough humanity to be curious and enthusiastic about novel things, then he will, as I did in 1971, take the manual home or log on in the evening, and study the business’s language like a good little eager-beaver anxious to carry the message to Garcia.

    Unfortunately, to the extent that the school system fails to destroy this very personality type, replacing it by party hearties and reality show stars, business in America in my experience finishes the job: because in the USA, engineering and technical salaries and job prospects plateau and then plummet at astonishingly early ages.

    I live in China, where most of the leadership consists of engineering graduates. In the USA and most other Western countries, engineers “peak” at 30 and are ready for the scrap-heap at 40. Is it any wonder that American students, as opposed to foreign students, who have seen their fathers defeated, are unwilling to learn engineering and entry-level skills?

    The late Edsger Dijkstra was a first rate computer scientist. In a lecture to matriculating students at the University of Texas in Austin, he courageously stated that education is an end in itself, not an “investment”. Business people who have long scorned geeks for their enthusiasm, and who have long installed ridiculous control systems in fear of geeks, need to look to themselves.

    In America today, businesspeople have lost any credibility and need no longer to set the agenda based on mathematical absurdities such as the “return on investment” of a university education. They’ve destroyed the auto and financial industry with their big talk, and at this point, they need to leave universities alone.

  2. Pingback: Response to Alec Newcombe on the “ROI” of university education « Spinoza1111’s Blog

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