How to Solve the Return on Investment (ROI) Problem for College Students

For the past six months, I have been blogging about some of the problems college students face upon graduation and the underwhelming efforts of colleges and universities to help solve these problems — namely, significant debt as well as a lack of training to compete for careers in our ever-changing economic environment. Along these lines, I came across a NY Times article dated February 18, 2017 entitled: “College Cost Too Much? N.Y.U. Paves Way to Graduate Faster.” The article explains that with the cost of an NYU education running about $66,000 per year (including room, board, tuition and fees), the university faces an “enormous affordability problem” evidenced by complaints from students over the cost of four years of tuition. NYU’s solution? A series of measures to make it easier to graduate in under four years and save money.

The article goes on to say that the governors of Ohio and Wisconsin are also trying to address these issues, but that some experts who study education are questioning this “acceleration effort” because of what students “will miss if they rush through their undergraduate years.” At least the fact that some higher ed institutions are proactively offering ways to reduce more than $60,000 a year in student debt is a good start, and perhaps the trade-off of a shorter college experience for many that must self-finance or borrow is worthwhile.

The future is still in doubt for a lot of today’s graduates

Of course I think that it is great to lower the debt load for these kids, don’t get me wrong…but if colleges don’t give them the skills they’re going to need out in the real world, they often graduate with no hope for a high paying entry level job.

Thomas Friedman in his book “Thank You For Being Late” has this very interesting comment: “Ever since the early 1990s, President Bill Clinton and his successors have been telling Americans the same old thing: if you work hard and play by the rules you should expect that the American system will deliver you a decent middle-class life and a chance for your children to have a better one. That was true at one time: just show up, be average, do your job, play by the rules, everything will be fine….Well say goodbye to all that.” So, what then is the prognosis for a great and productive future?

Friedman goes on to quote Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, who says, “Technology has raised the competitive requirements for companies and people.” What this means for college graduates is that with huge student debt and no ability to pay it off quickly, many of them are doomed to have a lower standard of living than their parents. Not so great for our society!

Reducing the cost of a college education is only solving half the problem

This is what I think. Reducing costs and therefore incurring reduced debt is a universally good thing since the lower the denominator, the higher the return on investment (ROI). But don’t we also have to fix the nominator? As in preparing students for good jobs, good careers and a great future? And while NYU has an affordability steering committee, I wonder what it is doing across the university to ensure that students are prepared for high paying jobs — because getting those jobs greatly enhances a student’s ability to increase the ROI.

This is not an easy problem to address. Getting students through the system faster is a centralized decision, and one person or one committee can get that done. But getting kids prepared for adult life across multiple disciplines is not so easy to fix. This is an interdisciplinary issue and requires buy-in on a department-by-department basis. Not so easy to do. And not so easy to assign responsibility for and require accountability along the way.

My thoughts on how to address this issue

Colleges and universities are not monolithic structures. Each part of the organization makes decisions based upon what is important to that specific cog in the wheel. And while different cogs might deny that real-life job preparation is important, it is!

So, here are some solutions. First, sensitize everyone to the issue at hand: that students must be prepared for meaningful employment with long-term futures. Next, concentrate on job preparation for students who get four-year degrees in non-technical areas. If this is to be a number one priority, where does it begin? In the career guidance office? The college placement office or admissions office? And/or the college executive office? But, guess what, it goes beyond that. It is the entire academic community!

Here’s what I mean: while actively preparing students for careers after college does take leadership at the highest levels, it must also include the students themselves. Let’s not count them out or dictate to them. They have ideas too and should be part of the team contributing to the success of the institution — a shared goal for all involved. And one more thing: let’s put metrics behind the effort because eventually the institution will need to measure its success in terms of student success.

What does the beginning of this effort look like? My sense is that if people don’t understand that there is a problem, it won’t get fixed. And if it is not fixed internally, it won’t get fixed at all. Therefore, it should start by focusing on awareness.

From the top down, from administration to  faculty to students, all stakeholders must be made aware that there is a problem, which is: because of the massive debt being incurred by today’s college students, higher ed institutions MUST better prepare students for well-paying jobs. And more importantly, they also need to be made aware that is THEIR responsibility (or at least a shared responsibility) to fix the problem.

Want to read more on the subject? Check out our blogs on higher education.

At Simon Associates Management Associates, we have extensive experience working with colleges on innovation and change, and have a proven track record of helping them realign their business models and adopt Blue Ocean Strategies® to achieve measurable growth. We’ve written several blogs on the subject; please let us know if they spark some ideas that maybe you can apply to your own organization. We’d love to hear from you.



Andy Simon, Partner
Simon Associates Management Consultants  

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