Politics & Policy

The Starbucks Solution

Getting employers involved could save American higher education.

The recent news that Starbucks will partner with Arizona State University to give the coffee chain’s employees greater access to higher education is a very positive development. Not just because skyrocketing tuition has made college an impossible dream for many young people, and not just because this massive investment in online courses is yet another stamp of approval for alternatives to the traditional education system. The Starbucks news will, we hope, signal the greater involvement of employers in the world of higher education.

In a recent Gallup survey, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agreed that today’s college graduates have the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. These business leaders occasionally take to the pages of the nation’s newspapers to express their frustration. One former CFO of Pitney Bowes and E*Trade wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal last year called “Our College Graduates Can’t Write!” As he explained, “They often have difficulty writing in declarative sentences and complete paragraphs — thus impeding the effectiveness of their business communications, including memos, letters, and technical reports.”

Faced with these complaints, most college administrators and faculty simply shrug. In a recent survey of university provosts conducted by Inside Higher Ed, 56 percent say that their institutions are “very effective” and 40 percent say they are “somewhat effective” at preparing students for the world of work.

And really, up until recently, the fact that their students weren’t being prepared wasn’t the administrators’ problem. College is basically the only game in town. We don’t have much in the way of an apprenticeship system where employers could take high-school graduates and train them for the jobs they need to fill. And high schools are underpreparing kids for the work world as well.

The college diploma has evolved into a way of signifying to employers that its owner is a reasonably responsible adult who can show up at places on time. Employers can make assumptions about a job candidate’s intelligence based on the SAT scores required to get into a particular school. Either way, colleges are not really adding much value. They just take kids in, keep them busy for a few years, and then spit them out the other end. A 2007 survey by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that seniors at Ivy League schools actually knew less about subjects like history and economics than freshmen at those same schools did.

A little more than a decade ago, Murray Sperber identified a kind of grand bargain that had been reached in higher education. In his 2001 book Beer and Circus, Sperber, a former professor at Indiana University, described how faculty have agreed not to bother the students with any rigorous academic requirements and in turn students haven’t demanded much from their professors as long as they are kept entertained by beer and sports.

Sadly, Sperber was not exaggerating. The average college student does less than 25 hours a week of schoolwork, including time spent in class. Professors are paid less for each additional hour they spend in the classroom. And the parents footing the bill don’t seem to mind because, well, you still need a college degree to get a good job and, if nothing else, kids leave college with a diploma.

But maybe we have reached a tipping point. Maybe businesses are tired of getting the short end of the higher-education stick. Maybe they’re annoyed that after they hire graduates from some of the best schools in the nation, they have to spend years training them to write declarative sentences. Maybe they are frustrated that in order to get highly qualified people in math and science fields, employers have to import them from abroad.

While Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks, has not said that the company will try to influence what courses students will take — they are free to choose from a wide variety of subjects and will be reimbursed for tuition regardless of their major — it certainly seems possible that other companies making such an investment will try to exert some influence over the content of the curriculum. AT&T just announced a partnership with the online-education company Udacity to provide anyone with a good grasp of high-school math the kind of basic programming knowledge needed to qualify for an entry-level position at AT&T, such as a data analyst or an iOS applications designer. The “NanoDegree” program will cost only $200 a month per student. If companies like Starbucks and AT&T are going to put tens of millions of dollars into educating the workforce, you can bet they will care what students learn.

No doubt university faculty will be up in arms if these outsiders try to change what (and how much) is taught at universities. But faculty and administrators have left business leaders with no choice.

— James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges . . . And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.


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