Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are no doubt aware of the college admissions scandal that resulted in indictments of 50 parents around the country who have been charged with paying an admissions counselor millions of dollars to get the children into the schools of their choice.
While there is no doubt plenty of blame to go around, it’s also instructive in these situations to look at the structural issues that may have resulted in these parents making these poor decisions. As an engineer, I often think about issues from the perspective of symptoms and root causes.
This does not mean that these parents should be absolved of the very real crimes in which they are charged. Instead, this is an opportunity to re-think what we are trying to actually accomplish in education.
If colleges and universities are simply a branding system that confers the highest rewards upon those who are able to attend the most prestigious universities then we will continue to see issues like this. And, if the incentives aren’t properly aligned with the target outcomes then parents will continue to game the system.
Algorithm based outcomes
In technology-based products and services, there is a foundational use of algorithms that are designed to generate the desired outcome. At Google, for example, they gained industry leadership in search because their algorithm was able to best determine which results were most useful to the user. As more users found the search engine useful, they were able to build a profitable advertising business around that core functionality.
Facebook uses a similar algorithmic approach to determine what shows up in the stream for their users. Similar to Google Facebook was able to build a profitable advertising business around this functionality. By leveraging technology-based outcomes, these products are able to create a high level of utility amongst their user base.
As a result, these products and services are able to scale to billions of users because they focus on the outcomes which are most important to their customers.
In education, one could argue that the ultimate goal is to teach someone the skills they need to positively impact the world. Whether that is as someone who joins a large corporation or starts their own company, the path to lead students down should be the development of creative problem solving skills.
To develop an algorithm to accomplish this outcome would require educational institutions to have conversations with companies around the the world to see which skills are most lacking among the current talent pool and then actively design programs to meet those needs.
While the default position might be to be prescriptive in the approach. In reality, this won’t be a very durable solution. For example, there is currently a lack of data scientists so we should design programs that teach Python. That approach would mean that those students would quickly be disrupted once the next big wave of innovation-based skills occurred.
Instead, it may be more useful to teach students how to learn, unlearn and relearn skills across a variety of disciplines as it is very unlikely that the specific skills they would learn in school will be applicable for their entire career.
In contrast, skills like resilience, grit, perseverance and problem solving will always be in demand regardless of the environment.
One of the most challenging parts about the college admissions fraud scandal is who was involved - the rich and famous. For most people, the assumption is that money and celebrity already conferred upon these children enormous advantages. Yet, their parents felt that wasn’t going to be enough for them to be successful.
Increasingly, educational opportunity has become less accessible to larger and larger portions of the population. Many of the schools that parents were trying to gain access to boast low single digit admission rates.
While that positioning makes for great marketing, it means that there are many people who aren’t able to gain access to educational institutions that they feel will set them up for success.
This isn’t just an issue at colleges and universities. Within the 3rd largest city in America, Chicago, the number of high schools that are considered desirable you can count on one hand. This means that there are way too many students competing for way too few students.
Perhaps instead of fighting for a small number of seats at a handful of schools, we should be actively thinking about ways to expand access to a broader segment of the population.
Ultimately, the goal should be how do we maximize the number of institutions that develop the skills students need to be successful. And then how do we make sure that we match this skill development with career opportunity.
While not everyone may be right for an Ivy League institution, people are going to fight to attend this type of institution if that’s the only way to get on a good career path for success.
In our current model, we seem to misalign rewards with outcomes. There are some students who may be able to breeze through classes and do well on standardized tests. While, there may be other students who aren’t able to communicate their intelligence in the current structure.
Unfortunately, we have defaulted to a singular model of measuring academic success - grades and test scores. While these help give a sense of relative performance within student groups, it doesn’t necessarily indicate who will be ultimately able to invent or create the game-changing innovations the world desperately needs.
For those who may have the potential to cure cancer or solve global warming, we need to make sure that we have a way to encourage not their point in time milestones but their overall velocity.
In essence, it’s finding a way to develop the student who grows just a bit each day and that over time will realize her potential by constantly working and developing. Since there are so many unknowns about the future and what skills will be required to make an impact, it is in society’s best interest to encourage all of young people to get excited about using their brain to solve problems even if the problem they will ultimately solve hasn’t yet presented itself.
Those who get comfortable knowing their impact may occur over time are far more likely to remain engaged even if they aren’t seeing near-term results in the traditional measures of progress - grades & test scores.
While the recent college admissions scandal surprised many people based on those involved, it is really symptomatic of a larger challenge within education. Currently, we treat colleges and universities as symbolic brands rather than what they should be which is the next educational step in a young adult’s journey.
By reframing what colleges and universities are all about and resetting the expectation of students progressing through elementary, middle and high school; we can create more desirable student outcomes that better prepare our young people for ultimate success.
Through this reframing and reseting, we need to make sure that our programs are speaking to all students even those who may not excel using the traditional measures of grades and test scores.
Instead we need to celebrate brilliance and excellence in the many ways it presents itself. Since we all want the best for our children, I have no doubt that this recent scandal will serve as a wake up that we need to do better by and for our young people.