Category Archives: Education

America’s Top Colleges List is Broken

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Let me guess. You looked at the recent Top Colleges List published by Michael Noer and suspiciously thought, “this doesn’t seem right.” I know that’s what went through my mind when I first looked at the list and found that my school, the University of Wisconsin – Madison, was number 147 on the list.

Since the list was published, I’ve had over 50 different conversations with people to ask them what they thought about the rankings. Overwhelming, the response was something along the lines of “the list is broken.” That was my feeling too.

As someone with a background in math and engineering, I can say that building out a model like this is not an easy task and I applaud Michael and his team for procuring such a comprehensive and transparent list. However, after reviewing the methodology behind these rankings, it seems to me like we should be measuring the schools on different factors.

If we want to look at “things that matter the most to students,” here are some components we should consider in next year’s list:

College Brand Equity. If you had to do college over again, how many of you would apply to Penn State? Or what would you do if you could attend Harvard? Like everything in life, perception is reality. Associations, prestige, and brand names all matter. For better or worse, people are persuaded by these accolades and if they will help advance your career in the real world, then they should also help advance the rankings of a particular school in this list.

Strength of Alumni Network. I once had a 3 hour meeting where I was pitching a client for new business.  By the end of the meeting I was only 50% certain that I would win the business, until I said, “I’m going to Madison this weekend for a visit.” That one remark sparked another 30 minute conversation because the prospective client also went to Wisconsin for school. That week I won the business and the deal was closed. Connections matter in business and in life. They should also matter in this list.

Number of CEOs or Executives at Companies. How many of you have read the biography of Steve Jobs, Thomas Edison, Warren Buffet, Mark Cuban, Richard Branson or other great business leaders? You’ve probably done this because you want to know what it takes to be successful. There are other great business leaders and captains of industry that are lesser known. These are CEOs and Executives at Fortune 500 companies and promising start ups. If some colleges produce more leaders than others, it’s probably a good indication that other great leaders will emerge from those schools and therefore, this metric should be part of the ranking methodology.

Number of Students Participating in Entrepreneurship Centers. To succeed in today’s global economy you must be innovative, adaptive and independent. Entrepreneurs understand this better than anyone, but the schools that understand this are the ones encouraging and operating those entrepreneurship centers. These schools are the ones that accept and embrace change and they are also the ones that will most likely survive the looming academic bubble.

Student Load Default Rates. Although this is included in the methodology, this component should be weighted much higher than 5%. The concept of school is simple. You go to school to learn and then you use that education to get a job and earn a living. If your student loans exceed your earnings then by definition, your career is less valuable than what you paid for it. Easy math. Easy metric. It should be weighted higher.

What other metrics do you think are missing from the list?

Connect with Dan Reich on Twitter – @danreich.

Why Engineering Majors Change Their Minds

This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

If we want our country and economy to get back on track we need to fix the education system for math and science related degrees. It’s simple really and everyone knows it. Growth happens when people build and sell things. In an age of high tech innovation those “growth” building blocks rely squarely on the skills acquired in a science, technology, math or engineering curriculum. It’s why the president and other industry groups are advocating for more students to graduate with these degrees.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Christopher Drew talks about “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds.” He really highlights some of the systemic issues that are engrained in our institutions but having experienced firsthand what it’s like to study engineering, I can tell you what’s really going on.

Cramsorption Learning. How fun is this? 2 hours a day, 3 days a week, a professor stands up in front of a classroom and paraphrases sections from a chemistry text book. After a few weeks of lectures and labs, the class is ready for its first test. A few days before the exam the libraries are pact. Students cram all of the formulas and anecdotes into their brains because in a few hours they will be responsible for regurgitating those same formulas onto a test. And once that test is finished, all of that information evaporates. Why? Because now the students need to focus on the next chapters and shortly thereafter they’ll have their next exam. By the next semester most of the learned information will go to waste because there was never any real practical experience applied to the information in the first place. Cram, regurgitate, next.

Learning from experience. One of the best Electrical Engineering classes I ever took was in high school during my freshman year. It wasn’t an EE class per se’ but it just as easily could have been. My teacher David Peins, basically said to the class, “here are some parts, here is how to make a Printed Circuit Board (PCB), and here are some circuits. Go build a firefighting robot that can autonomously navigate a maze and put out a fire.” What ensued was what all engineering programs should be like. We had to figure things out on our own and when we had questions, which we did almost all the time, we would ask Mr. Peins. By the end of the class we had learned about resistors, transistors, tute-bot circuits, and an entire foray of engineering concepts. I didn’t even learn about transistors until my junior year in my real ECE major. In high school, I learned these concepts by doing and not by sitting in some lecture hall taking notes.

Grades, grades, grades. I got a 2.5 GPA the first semester of my freshman year. I thought I could do what I did in high school – almost nothing and get by with good grades. My other college buddies thought the same thing. It turned out they did much better than I did freshman year, but it was also true that they were not pursuing a degree in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). So here I was taking extremely hard courses, working 3x as many hours as my peers for crappier grades. And as school progressed it was time for me to start thinking about my future. At one point I thought about attending the London School of Economics. I gave them a call and they said I needed a 3.5 GPA regardless of my major. So here I was thinking about my future and I was already at a disadvantage because my major produced historically lower grades than other majors. Had I really wanted to go to the school I might have switched. I know I debated it almost every day for two years.

School Rankings. The end justifies the means. I heard a story once that went like this. A university had a top program for entrepreneurship. The best students from the STEM majors wanted to put their skills to work so instead of taking jobs from some of the top, high paying companies like Google or Intel, they choose to work on their own projects. Great, right? More entrepreneurs. Bring it. Well that university ended up cutting back on that program because those high quality students weren’t taking those high paying jobs. And when part of a school’s rankings are predicated on graduate’s starting salaries, you might see why long term opportunities were sacrificed for short term gains. We’ve seen this story before though – see Wall Street.

Money, money, money. In college, my buddies and I came up with this great idea that we thought would change the world and make us a lot of money. We realized that millions of cars each day were driving over speed bumps in the roads. These speed bumps were put in place to force the car to slow but consequentially there was also a lot of energy going to waste during this process. We thought that we could harness this lost kinetic energy and pump it back into an electrical grid. So we went to work. We started developing the equations and formulas needed to make this happen. One of our professors was helping us but after a while he asked, “why are you doing this?” Thinking this was already an obvious answer, we responded “because it’s a great idea and it will make us rich.” He quickly began to tell us about a fellow engineering friend of his who came up with several inventions but ultimately went to Wall Street because he wanted to get paid and he was having a hard time turning inventions into real products and businesses.

Its Hard. One of my exam questions once was, “How much fuel do you need to get to mars?” That was it. We needed to account for the earth’s gravity, various altitude levels, the trajectory of the flight path, the mass and weight of the ship, and so on. This was a straight up NASA question and I was barely doing well on my calculus exams. The reality is that most STEM majors have topics that are extremely difficult and sometimes they are just too hard too complete. How did I deal with this? I just worked harder. Was it worth it? It was for me but most others deferred to the “Grades, Grades, Grades” section.

Changing the Status-Quo. The feeling I get with most STEM course work today is that they were designed for a 9 to 5 industrial age with the goal of producing great workers for great companies in a non-global economy. This reverberated through my mind as I sat in those giant lecture halls. But now we are very much in a competitive, global, all-hours-of-the-day economy. We need a system that rewards risk taking and encourages people to pursue challenging academic careers. This is not happening today because we are too focused on school rankings, easy grades, short term gains, and maintaining the status-quo.

Sooner or later these issues will be addressed and they will most likely come from someone who has the building blocks to address and engineer real problems. I just hope more people stick with Science, Technology, Math and Engineering and don’t change their minds.

The University of Nothing – The Bylaws

I’ve said several times on this blog that the education system is broken and is in desperate need of change. I now think we are finally starting to see the emergence of a new era in education reform. One led by the private sector.

The issue I still struggle with is how to balance the intersection, or lack thereof, between cutting edge methods of education with societal expectations of having to graduate from an accredited university.

Specifically, what is the difference between a Harvard business professor teaching a Harvard class, in Harvard, vs. someone like a Fred Wilson teaching a business class in his firm’s office? What is the difference between a computer science professor teaching JavaScript in a university building vs. a computer science entrepreneur teaching JavaScript in some office space in NYC?

To me, the answer simply boils down to a piece of paper. A degree. Being able to say you graduated from a prestigious program or accredited university which is still very highly regarded within our society. My friend calls this a “luxury good.”

Furthermore, what does it really mean to have “accreditation in the United States?”  According to the US Department of Education:

The goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality.

Well I think its clear that the “levels of quality” are definitely not acceptable. Just go watch the movie Waiting for Superman.

And how exactly does a University even achieve this “accreditation?”

Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency’s evaluation and that meet an agency’s criteria are then “accredited” by that agency.

So I’ve always wondered, “what if there was a way to leverage the best technologies and platforms for education while still maintaining an element of prestige or recognition outside of the broken, very expensive university systems?”

And now I think I know the solution: New Accreditation Agencies and Guidelines.

Here is how it would work:

  1. There would be new, self governed accreditation agencies, with new guidelines, that are not subject to government oversight.
  2. These agencies would be comprised of successful, influential individuals who have rich domain expertise (e.g. venture capital, finance, online ad tech, biology, etc).
  3. The agency itself would be its own university or academic institution.
  4. These agency individuals would oversee: a) the appointment of other “teachers” b) the fundraising initiatives of the “investment pool” (described later) c) public outreach and communications about the agency itself via personal blogs, op-eds on third party publications, etc.
  5. These agency individuals would teach: a) design curriculums, b) teach and broadcast classes using the latest education platforms (e.g. SkillShare, YouTube), c) make introductions as needed on behalf of their students
  6. These individuals would invest: using the “investment pool,” these individuals would allocate money to students that have demonstrated the ability to succeed as a jobs creator, otherwise known as entrepreneurs via their class projects (described later).
  7. The investment pool would be comprised of capital raised from non-profits, endowments, donations and there would be no contingencies tied to the money.
  8. At the end of the curriculum, the students would be given a degree that is widely recognized by the participating members of the agency (e.g. the influential VCs, financiers, executives, etc). Instead of graduating in hopes of getting a job, these students would be graduating with an extensive network of active working people with a possibility of getting money from the “investment pool” to fund a business.
  9. Student tuition is not required.
  10. Tests are not used to assess students. Projects, prototypes, and inventions are.

Although fairly abstract and not fully vetted, I think the final result would be getting a bunch of smart people together, with money to help fund those smart people’s ideas, while providing the students with an umbrella of recognition, and a network of business contacts that could rival an accredited or prestigious university. All the while the students would be learning in the most efficient ways possible.

The best part is, the only people that would care to be involved in such a program would be those looking to build real businesses which in turn will drive innovation, new jobs, and real growth.

Value of Engineering to the Entrepreneur

This post originally appeared on Badger Engineers.

My company Spinback was recently acquired by Buddy Media, the largest Facebook Management Company in the world. It’s clear that my four years studying in the Wisconsin College of Engineering has played a role in that acquisition.

At the core, I’d argue that an engineering, math, or science related degree is the single best degree or use of four years in an undergraduate program, especially a program at UW – Madison. In my years in the COE, I obtained a certain skill set that has helped me succeed during and after school, and in the various businesses I was involved with including Spinback. I’m not talking about skills like designing a circuit or solving for a system of equations. I’m talking about the cliché skills we always hear about but disregard as obvious and too abstract for our own benefit.

The skills I’m talking about are teamwork, problem solving, hard work and creativity. In every single class and project that I worked on while at school, each one of these skills was required.  I remember spending many hours with my friends like Steve Weisman (ECE ’08) and David Nosbusch (ECE ’08) poring over class notes and textbooks (and also starting two businesses together while at school). No matter what the content and material, the routine was the same. We studied together, relentlessly discussed the problems together, and used creativity to help solve a solution when we couldn’t find one. In the COE, this is what we were all taught to do. In the real world, these are the skills that have helped me succeed and they are also the same skills that have given me confidence to venture out as an entrepreneur.

Before we were acquired, we were the typical startup. We had raised very little money and had a billion and one things to do. We had to build a product, sell the product to clients, create marketing materials, manage finances, create processes and business workflows, deal with attorneys, and on and on. The reality is I never learned about any one particular topic in school that was applicable to our business. Its not like I took a class called “how to prioritize features” or “how to get a terms sheet from a VC.” I did however learn how to think in a certain way. An analytical thought process that allowed me to break down each component of our business and understand how each component affected the other.  And this is what engineering is all about. It’s about understanding how things work, in order to identify a problem and ultimately solve for that problem.

At Spinback, the problem we were solving was how to help online retailers leverage social media to drive and track new sales. In a short period of time, our solutions called EasyShare and EasyTrack helped us secure over 15 clients in less than two months. We were able to sign up some of the largest online retailers in the world, convince investors to give us money to scale our business, and secure our position as a thought leader in the social commerce space. As a result, we were lucky and fortunate enough to be acquired by one of the fastest growing technology companies of all time.

Looking back, I can recall one very late night in our Union Square office. As we were trying to solidify a sales and marketing strategy one of my partners said, “this is one giant equation that we are solving.”  In that moment I thought about the four years at UW-Engineering and said, “Yes, yes it is.”

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Academic Inflation

We are experiencing academic inflation. This is a theme I can’t seem to shake and its something that I think is only getting worse. Much worse, so long as our educational institutions keep up the status quo.

If you break it down, the logical train of thought should go something like this:

  1. Go to school
  2. Do well
  3. Graduate
  4. Get a job
  5. Make lots of money
  6. Live your life

Somewhere along the road we ended up at a place that looks something like this:

  1. Go to school – if you can even get in
  2. Take adderall to do well on tests
  3. Do well – assuming the class isn’t beaten up by a ridiculous curve
  4. Graduate
  5. Not qualified enough to get a high paying job so repeat steps 1 – 4 (or you just want more job security)
  6. Graduate
  7. No jobs, student loans, and you realized you were passionate about something completely unrelated to the previous 8 years of school
  8. Take a crappy job, make money and pay off your loans or pursue your dreams as an unemployed entrepreneur
  9. Live your life

I’m obviously exaggerating a bit (or am I) but you get the idea. I think we are at that moment in time when people are beginning to realize that education is more about practical experience and less about theoretical, mental gymnastics that spit out a piece of paper after 4 years.

This excerpt from a recent TechCrunch article called Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education. really spells it out and I really think Peter nails it.

“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

The post than goes on to say:

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

And this couldn’t be further from the truth. Just ask any recent college graduate and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Fortunately, there are some very smart people doing some very smart things in the educational field but at the end of the day, this will be a battle between cultural expectations and measurable results. After seeing innovations like the Khan Academy, which is in my opinion one the most important advancements in information technology and education, I’m confident we’ll move beyond the status quo and into an era that rewards results, innovation and happiness, and not elitism, cultural norms, and degrees.

Below is a video by Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy and perhaps one of the soon-to-be most important figures of our generation.

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