Getting Over College
Gerald Chertavian is the CEO and Founder of Year Up, a non-profit organization that provides intensive professional education to urban young adults. His organization was recently recognized by Fast Company and The Monitor Group as one of the top 25 organizations in the nation using business excellence to engineer social change. Prior to starting Year Up, Chertavian co-founded Conduit Communications and served as the head of marketing at Transnational Financial Services in London. He has been an active member of the Big Brother mentoring program since 1985, and was awarded New York’s outstanding member in 1989. He was also awarded the 2003 Social Entrepreneurship Award by the Manhattan Institute and the 2005 Freedom House Archie R. Williams, Jr. Technology Award. A graduate of Bowdoin College and Harvard Business School, Chertavian was born and raised in Lowell, MA.
Gerald Chertavian: College today is an expensive option without a lot of economies of scale, right, when you go and live at a college. So you have a system that's increasing its cost base by probably five percent a year. So when you go to college, if you go to an Ivy League college, it's going to cost you forty-five thousand a year, plus let's not forget the endowment maybe kicks off another fifteen thousand to twenty thousand dollars. So you're going to spend sixty-five thousand dollars to educate someone, for four years, right, so now we're talking a lot more than that, sixty-five thousand times four. That's not a tenable cost structure. You will not educate millions and millions and millions of Americans -- to the extent we need an educated workforce and a skilled labor force, that system will not have the capacity to educate people to the extent this country needs them. So we can want college graduates, but I can guarantee you we're going to have at least a ten to fifteen-million-person shortage of college graduates in this country over the next ten to fifteen years, whether we like it or not.
So if we're going to remain competitive as a country, if we're going to have a knowledge-based workforce, we have to think about what are the other strategies, pathways, policies that encourage young people to get the skills and the credentials they need to be a good source of supply for our companies in this country, and to be good workers in this country. This -- and companies -- my prediction is companies will lead this revolution. So if we think our educational establishments and our colleges are going to respond quickly enough, your companies ultimately will say, we need to take matters into our own hands. We will do more work training because we can't trust the public education system to do what we need to do. So you will see the rise of large companies saying, we are now getting greater into the business of education because the system is not producing the number of skilled workers we need.
Question: Does this approach contradict the value of a classical liberal arts education?
Gerald Chertavian: When you think about what you said, a classical liberal arts education, what we need today is -- clearly you have to have core content, right? You've got to know how to write, how to read, how to do mathematics. And you need core subject areas, where there's history, geography, science. So that's never going to change, and anything I'm about to say is predicated upon the fact that you must have that to start. But if you look at what is demanded in this economy and our society, there's an increasing premium being placed on critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, complex communications -- so how I sell something, persuade you, influence you -- so complex communications. And then what's called expert thinking, which is solving a problem for which there isn't a rule-based outcome. So those skills are paid probably twice what they were today than just twenty years ago.
Now, I would argue, if you said classical liberal arts, what you are describing to me is someone who has a pretty broad base of knowledge, clearly has all the core areas covered, they've gone deep one place, but you're really saying, I believe they can think, they can learn, they can solve problems, and they can think critically, and they can communicate with me. That's, I would argue, your concept of a classical liberal arts education. What I'm saying is, if we don't find smarter, faster, better ways to help people learn those skills, don't think a forty-five-thousand dollar-a-year college is going to do it for the rest of America, because it's not. There's got to be a better way to do it, and we need to come to grips with that as quickly as possible, recognize that those skills can be learned in different settings, if we are to remain competitive in this country.
Question: Is the importance of an undergraduate degree declining?
Gerald Chertavian: Well, for many, many years we bifurcated society at a certain age. You go to college, you go to the workforce. And that was really a split in how we conceived of who was educated and even what the role of a four-year college degree meant and was for, for hundreds and hundreds of years. Now if you go to one hundred adults in America today and you say, raise your hand if you have a college degree, about twenty-nine will raise their hand. If you then say, keep your hand up if you got that degree between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, about eight hands will be up. So when you think of one hundred Americans -- anywhere in the country, choose One hundred Americans – ninety-two either don't have a college degree, or even if they did they didn't get it between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. So when we think about the role of post-secondary education in America today, we really have to ask our politicians and our policy-makers, are we designing policies in the image of how we perhaps consumed higher education? Right? Which is eighteen to twenty-two, fixed time, you know, school with buildings. That is eight percent of the adults in America today. So maybe if we work real hard, we're going to get from eight to twelve percent, or eight to ten percent, a twenty percent growth in that.
But I reckon there's a lot more gain to be made by saying the other 92 percent of adult Americans need to get post-secondary credentials, need to consume higher education, but doing it in a fixed-term four-year degree is not necessarily the way that Americans will consume higher education in the future. In fact, it was -- I was listening, before he passed away, to Peter Drucker, and he had said, don't take four-year college for granted. And what he was saying back then is what we're seeing play out today, is the fact that an average age of a Bachelor of Arts in America is about twenty-seven and a half years old. So the person getting a B.A. in America today is on average twenty and a half. The average student in a public university works twenty-five hours a week.
So we have to design policies and support systems for Americans who will work while they get educated, who will be older when they get educated, and who will not necessarily do this in one chunk of time between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. It is imperative -- if we're going to have a society of skilled workers, of knowledge-based workers, which we know we need to have to be competitive globally -- it is imperative that we design our educational systems to reflect the changing needs of Americans in the way they are consuming higher education today
Question: Are corporations ready to stop focusing on graduates of four-year universities?
Gerald Chertavian: The answer is, yes they are, but they need to see proof. So we've had several of our largest corporate partners, who would be in your Fortune 100 of this country, change their hiring practices such that they can hire someone who is getting a college degree but doesn't yet have one into their workforce. So we -- you know, all of our students are dual-enrolled in college. So we're not at all neglecting the fact that you have to earn a post-secondary credential, at least one year of post-secondary at minimum, and hopefully continue on from that.
But we're seeing now large corporations who have seen our young adults in action saying, actually, we want to hire these young adults, and therefore we need to change the policy of the company in order to allow us to do that. So we're seeing that movement. I've also seen companies say, you now, Gerald, we really only hire people with college degrees. And what I often ask is, specifically can you help me to understand what are you looking for when you say that? What skills, competencies, attitudes and behaviors are you looking for when you made that statement? And then I say, if I could prove to you that our students have that, would you not give them a chance? Because then I'm asking, if you said you need X and we provide X, then you're using a proxy for something -- a college degree -- when I can give you demonstrable proof our students have the things. So would you want a proxy that you may or may not know whether they studied or not? You may or may not know the quality of the institution they went to. You may or may not know whether they actually partied twenty-three hours out of twenty-four or actually got an education. Or I can show you demonstrably what they have from skills. Which would you rather have?
Recorded on: October 29, 2009
The price of 4 year universities has been increasing by an average of 5 percent per year, a trend that is both unsustainable and contrary to the needs of a knowledge-based economy. As the founder of Year Up explains, if we’re going to survive the looming education crisis, we’ll need to adopt a radically different vision of higher learning.
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