Is Education Missing its Target or Just Aiming at the Wrong Target?

I’d like to think that business education should be about education more than business. It should be about leadership, perspective, and vision, more than about analysis, buzzwords, jobs, and salaries. But is it? Or is that just the kind of high-sounding stuff we write when looking back, years later?

Rethinking the MBAI’ve seen two important pieces on higher education and business education in the last week, one questioning the idea of the MBA, the other questioning higher education in general. While the Harvard Business School writes about a glass half full in The Future of MBA Education, Seth Godin writes about what he calls The coming melt-down in higher education on his blog.

The Harvard post summarizes a new book called Rethinking the MBA, by David Garvin,  Srikant Datar, and Partick Cullen. It’s about six cases of well-known business schools (including Stanford, my personal favorite) revising their programs to deal with a changing world. In the interview, Garvin says:

Yet rebalancing from the current focus on “knowing” or analytical knowledge to more of what we call “doing” (skills) and “being” (a sense of purpose and identity) must occur. Business schools need to think innovatively about how best to use the resources available to them. For example, there are many exciting opportunities to engage alumni in the learning process.

Seth Godin calls his bleak picture “as seen by a marketer.” He predicts “meltdown” in higher education for five reasons:

  1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.
  2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.
  3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.
  4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.
  5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

He makes several very good points. This observation seems all too true:

College wasn’t originally designed to merely be a continuation of high school (but with more binge drinking). In many places, though, that’s what it has become. The data I’m seeing shows that a degree (from one of those famous schools, with or without a football team) doesn’t translate into significantly better career opportunities, a better job or more happiness than a degree from a cheaper institution.

In both cases, to me, it’s about confusing education with job training and job placement. If you measure success by average salaries and job placements, then as a society you substitute job training for education. The target is growth of the person, not growth of the income.

I have to admit that I started thinking about getting an MBA degree when my dad showed me a newspaper story about MBAs getting high-paying jobs. So now years later, I write about education first; but for me it was about changing careers, from journalist to business.

That worked for me. I did change jobs. However the real value, as I look back, was in the classroom, what I learned, much more than the step up to the next job. Years later, what I expect from somebody with an MBA degree is a better view of the whole business, from finance to marketing to operations, human resources, and so forth. You might work in one functional area, but you have basic understanding of the whole, not just your specific part. And you have a sense of what business analysis is like, how and when it’s useful.

Or at least, that’s what I hope. I’ve also posted on this blog my thoughts on what business schools can teach, what they don’t teach, and questions to ask before getting an MBA.


  • Chris says:

    I totally agree that colleges are “increasingly confusing education with job training and job placement” and that “the target [should be] growth of the person, not growth of the income.”

    One problem of course is that personal growth is a hard thing to measure. A university provost or college president can claim success when an increase in the job placement rate occurs under his or her tenure but it is hard to make any claim about a “personal growth rate.” Similarly it is easier for a university recruiter to make a pitch based on job placement while personal growth tends to get lost in the ubiquitous claim, “we create a great learning environment.”

    Deeper than that though is the problem that education itself in the U.S. has increasingly become a business, even at supposedly “elite” institutions such as Stanford. The choice of which school to go to is more than ever an inherently economic decision due to rising tuition costs, a globally competitive workforce etc. – and because of this, improving job placement rates will continue to be a dominant concentration of our higher education system, leaving personal growth a bygone consideration of an era when we could afford to give it our (institutional) attention – a deeply saddening thought.

  • Robbin Block says:

    If you think this is bad, check out the piece Frontline aired tonight called College Inc. about for-profit schools, like University of Phoenix and Argosy.

  • Charles Robinson says:

    For a little dramatic effect: . Sadly it’s not far off base.

  • Charles Robinson says:

    Your expectations of what an MBA conveys and my experience with people who have MBA’s are widely different. 🙂 I would like to think it is as you present but unfortunately that hasn’t been what I have seen.

  • MeiMei Fox says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’m surprised that you (& the authors you quoted) didn’t discuss the value of networking. Many of my friends who attended Stanford GSB and other top business school programs considered the value of their future network in their decision to attend–from the time they were accepted, all the way to the grave.

    I went to Stanford undergrad, and I continue to find immense value in my connections to other Stanford alumni–both those whom I know and those I never met but can connect with thanks to our common alma mater. I also value the community that Stanford Alumni Association continues to foster, finding ways to aid with career search, connections to other alumni, stimulating events, etc.

    To me, the value of my Stanford education has extended far, far beyond the years I spent on campus learning as a student there thanks to this social networking effect.

    -MeiMei Fox

  • John Crickett says:

    “confusing education with job training and job placement”

    This certainly seem to be the case in the UK. Our government encourages more and more people to “get a degree” without giving any real thought to the relevance of those degrees to actually achieving it’s goals (presumably higher levels of employment).

    It will be interesting to see how the rebalancing pans out. Most employers seem to disregard degree’s as lacking “doing” skills – are they likely to change that opinion any time soon?