Is college ready for you?

We like to ask whether high school students are ready for college, but what if we flipped that around? What if we asked whether college is ready for our students?

Imagine you’re a high school senior.  You have been admitted to a few colleges, and have a sense that you might want to study business… or economics… or psychology… although you also love literature, so maybe you’ll major in English.  You really aren’t sure--which is as it should be, because you’re only 18 years old.

Business (with a quantitative focus; beware the general business major), economics, psychology, English: these might be good choices for you--if you believe in the value of a liberal arts education and have a reasonably good sense of the direction your life will take after college.

But what if--like most high school seniors--you don’t know what you want to study, to say nothing of what career you intend to pursue after graduation?  Would you consider any of the following?

+ Augmented reality designer

+ Virtual reality educator

+ User experience architect

+ Artificial intelligence tester

+ Search engine optimizer

+ Online reputation manager

For the sake of the argument, let's say that one or more of these job opportunities appeals to you. These are “all part of a growing list of jobs that have no university pathway to get there,” as Thomas Frey puts it in his provocatively titled post, “Will Coworking Replace Colleges?”

What do you do?

While the title suggests an either / or model, Frey actually describes a “collision course” between coworking and college experiences.  After describing four different coworking ventures that offer educational programming for members, he writes:

“[T]here are no coworking locations currently offering a four-year bachelor degree, but that’s exactly the point. [...] In the emerging gig economy where 36% of all work is already being done by freelancers, Millennials no longer feel they have the luxury of blowing 4-5 years and a boatload of money learning abstract concepts when they can take a 3-4 month coding bootcamp and learn while doing actual work that they’re being paid for. [...] How many schools are currently prepping students to be ‘freelancer-ready’? In a word--none. [...] Mentorship is quickly becoming the new classroom.”

At an average cost of ~$35,000 a year for private college, how long before higher ed realizes that 18-year olds have options?  

In addition, I’m going to assume that coworking spaces will continue to invest in these three value propositions:

  • just-in-time learning

  • powerful social and professional networks

  • valid learning credentials

If that continuous improvement takes place, will it be worth it for high school seniors to spend a semester or a year in a co-working place before making the much more significant commitment to a four-year college?

In the near term, I suspect that most high school seniors will continue to see immediate matriculation to college as the norm, for social reasons if nothing else.  But…

What if coworking spaces (and gap programs) shave off a percentage point or two of students each year.  1 or 2% probably seems negligible, but after only five years colleges would have hemorrhaged 5-10% of enrollment.  And that is unlikely to be experienced evenly by all colleges--the schools with the weakest value proposition will suffer the most.  As they close or consolidate, will coworking spaces press their advantage?

And what if during the same period of time some high schools begin to offer year-round programming that allows students to finish their “regular” requirements by the end of junior year, so that senior year can be spent at least in part in a coworking space, gaining work experience and maybe even earning credentials.  Will that lead coworking spaces to invest more in their value propositions?

If all of this sounds just a little too out there, if you can’t conceive of a world in which students don’t have the formational experience of a four-year residential college experience, consider Morgan Housel's essay on how people first reacted to the car and the airplane.  And pay special attention to the chart on page three (after 1908, pick any five year period and calculate how much change happens).

Change is slow... until it's not. Who's ready?




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Christian Talbot