Monday, March 14, 2011

sponsoring higher education

There are often headlines lamenting the US unversity system's inability to produce students in the right areas. Will we have enough software engineers? Enough nanotechnologists? Chemists?

At the same time, I don't think most entering college freshmen have enough exposure to any profession to make an informed choice about their area of study. Most people I know switched majors at least once. The only profession that universities can competently explain and expose for students is academia. I know the common wisdom is that college is where you should explore and figure out what you want to do, but I think that is just terrible advice.

Maybe that made sense in the 60s, when a degree was relatively cheap, a bachelor's virtually guaranteed employment, and everyone was into "figuring themselves out". Welcome to the new age, where not only does a degree not guarantee work, it costs an absolute fortune. I just don't think it makes sense to invest so much money in a college degree without knowing, at least roughly, what you want from your education. I may sound old when I say this, but students need to take responsibility for maximizing what they do with their four years of undergraduate study.

The problem, in my mind, is the lack of exposure. There are so many professions, but graduating high school students are likely only exposed to a small sample based around their parents and pop culture (aside: the social network could do more to create software engineers than all public and private programs combined. Software engineering looked cool, even sexy, in that movie). But, the sooner students can find the field that inspires their passion, the sooner they can start on a path to expertise. I'm not arguing against liberal arts, I think companies like Apple are the culmination of our investment in liberal arts education. I am saying you will have a better liberal arts education if you are aiming at a particular field. So, how can we create a system that exposes students to interesting professions, and helps target university graduates for the most demanded degrees?

Corporate Sponsorship.

Companies should hire high school students into internships designed to train them in the fundamenals of a field. Then, if students choose a relevant degree program at an accredited university, the company shoud pick up their tuition, books, and living expenses. In exchange, students should intern each summer, maintain a minimum GPA, and commit to full time employment for four years following graduation. Smart companies investing in the long run would jump at the chance to add some predictability to their hiring, especially for cyclically demanded professions like software engineers. Smart students can go to college for free, and know they are directing their talents wisely.

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