The college admissions cheating scandal first unmasked on March 12 remains a hot topic among parents and teens. At a time when many are asking tough questions about what constitutes “a level playing field,” this controversy might force a long-overdue reckoning for the American higher education system.
The increasing cost of college, and the explosion of debt that students have taken on to finance their educations, are clearly not sustainable. From 1989 to 2016, the cost of obtaining a four-year degree doubled, even after inflation. Meanwhile, real median wages increased just 9%. The result of this gap is an avalanche of student debt: about $1.6 trillion, more than any other consumer debt besides housing.
However, taking on all that debt still doesn’t guarantee students a good job once they graduate. College students on average expect to make $60K/year in their first job out of college, but they actually make closer to $50K. The bottom half of college graduates earned less in 2016 than they did in 2000. And the median hourly wage for college grads in 2016 ($25) is slightly less than it was in 2000. Analysts speculate this is because employers have been automating “medium-skilled” jobs such as bookkeeping and clerical work, which lowers the demand for college grads and therefore their wages.
There’s still a large wage premium for college grads vs. high-school grads: the former earned $31.93/hour on average in 2016, while the latter earned $17.25. So it’s no wonder that many parents and students still look at a college degree as a “lottery ticket” that can pay hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a lifetime vs. a high school education alone.
Still, increasing numbers of parents and students are questioning if that premium is worth the four to eight years of opportunity cost, plus the debt burden (which is $30K on average, but more than $100K for at least 2.5 million borrowers), not to mention the legal and moral burdens of cutting corners or cheating outright to place a student at a selective school.
What can brands do to help address this crisis?
*Help match students with their interests. It’s a fallacy that every student is best-served by a highly selective, insanely expensive college. Many would learn the same or better skills at a public, vocational or smaller private school. Imagine if Intel provided online resources for colleges with the best, most cost-effective STEM programs, or if Michael Kors provided information for students looking to get into fashion. It would help fill the talent pipeline in their industries, and place those companies top-of-mind among future employees and consumers.
*Sponsor online training courses. The college scandals might speed the adoption and acceptance of online courses. Jere, brands can take the lead in educating their current and future workforces with formal online coursework; TED Talk-style lectures from senior thought-leaders; and life skill courses, such as personal finance by Citigroup, finding your first apartment by Allstate, or study skills courtesy of Texas Instruments.
*Broaden the scope of hiring. Especially in a tight labor market, brands shouldn’t wait to hire a talented person until they’re in their mid-20s and finished with college. They can reach Gen Z innovators with internships (ideally paid), apprenticeships and programs that target highly talented people who don’t want to start or finish college. And at a minimum, companies can step up efforts to recruit from a broader cross-section of college campuses, and not just the so-called top-tier schools.Nobody should have to lie and cheat to get a good education, or pursue a meaningful career. The brands that provide teens with a ladder to success are those that will win life-long advocates.