TEDxUCLA 2014: Open 2.0

How to make college better, and why we need to


About John

John Pryor is a higher education professional with over 25 years of experience in using research findings to help improve the college experience.


You spent four years getting here. You stayed in when your friends were all out. You stayed in studying. You take a part-time job to pay, to pay for college. Tens of thousands of dollars of loans in order to help pay for college. Your family supported you, and here you are. You’ve got that college degree and you’re ready for the next step. You’re ready for that great job that you were going to get after you got that college degree.

The number one reason why students go to college is to get a better job. For eight years, I ran the Cooperative Institutional Research Program here at UCLA, a national survey of incoming first-year students, and one of the things that we know from that is that the number one reason why students go to college is to get a better job.

And when they’re looking to go to college, where they’re going to go, they look to see, do the graduates get good jobs? That’s one of their very important criteria in deciding where to go. Gallup studies also tell us that the number one reason why parents support their students in going to college is to get a better job. And the American public, when you ask them about why go to college? You guessed it. It’s to get a better job.

But 70 percent of the young people with college degrees are employed full-time right now. And that job might not be that great job that you were hoping for, that you anticipated, the reason why you went to college. We’ve seen a 71 percent increase in the percentage of college graduates who are working in minimum-wage jobs.

If we look at those with great jobs — and this is a study that I worked with at Gallup — looking at who has great jobs among college graduates, only 39 percent of college graduates have what we would consider a great job. The rest are, y’know, they’re just not engaged in their job. They’re working from 9 to 5. They’re doing an okay job and it’s okay, but really they’re kind of living more for what comes outside of work.

But at least that’s better than the actively disengaged people, the ones who are wandering up and down the hallway, they’ll pop your head into your office and they complain about the boss, they complain about some new policy procedure, they’re actively sowing discontent in the, in the workplace. And they’re that person that stole your lunch out of the fridge.

The engaged employees love what they do. They have the opportunity to do what they’re best at every day. They have the opportunities to learn and grow. They are people who, who feel a real connection with the mission of the organization. They feel that that mission is important.

We need more people with those great jobs, not only because that’s a promise of higher education, implicit or explicit. It’s actually good for the economy too. Employed — engaged employees — are more likely to be productive employees. They are more likely to have lower health care costs. That’s good for the economy. They’re more likely to stay in their position. That’s good for the economy. So it’s not only good for us to fulfill that promise of higher education. It’s also good for, for the nation to have people who have great jobs.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had more people who had great jobs out there? If those of us who worked in colleges and universities could find some way to figure out what it is about the experiences that students have in college that might lead to this great job? Well, it turns out we do know that.

In this study at Gallup, where I was just telling you about the 39 percent who have these great jobs, we also asked a number of questions about the college experience that they had, a number of questions that look at kinds of things the students, these students did, that graduates did when they were students.

It turns out that there were three very important things there that led to the greater likelihood of having this great job: a long-term project that took over a semester to complete, being extremely involved in activities or organizations, and having an internship or job that allowed you to apply what you were learning in the classroom in a real-world setting.

But is this the focus of higher education? Is this something that we see that this is of importance? Well, another Gallup survey looking at chief academic officers, nine out of 10 chief academic officers in colleges and universities told us that they are confident that they are preparing their students well to go out and get a job. But if we ask business leaders who have jobs available for college graduates, only one out of ten tells us that they see the skills and abilities that they need in college graduates today.

So we’ve got a discrepancy there, don’t we? There’s a mismatch between what the chief academic officers are saying and what the, the business leaders are saying. Well, what could be some of the reasons behind that?

We don’t see a real application of real-world problem-solving in the classroom. In fact, in another study that I led when I was here at UCLA of college faculty nationwide, we asked them about the goals that they had for undergraduates. Preparedness for a job after college ranked seventh amongst college faculty. That’s the number one reason why students go to college. It’s the number one reason why their parents support them in going to college and the number one reason why the American public supports higher education, because they think you’re gonna get a better job. But that ranked seventh amongst the faculty.

So what were some of the other things the faculty put above that? Well, critical thinking, the ability to write effectively, a mastery of knowledge in a discipline, of being able to assimilate large amounts of information and look at the quality of that information, to be able to have tolerance and respect for different beliefs.

All those were things that faculty said were their goals for undergraduates. Those are great goals. It turns out that those are also very similar to what employers say they’re looking for in college graduates that they’re not seeing.

Only 50 percent of faculty in their work use real-world problem-solving in the classroom. 40 percent of graduating seniors tell us that they have not had the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in real-life situations. Only one out of three was very satisfied with the connection that was made from what was going on in the classroom and what they would need in an employing, in an employment situation.

So what’s going on here? Well, when we also asked faculty about whether they felt they were employed, or they were prepared for their job as a faculty member from graduate school, only half of them thought that they were prepared for that role. If the faculty aren’t prepared for their own role, how likely is it that they’re going to be able to prepare students for the workplace in areas where they mostly have no experience?

Most faculty go straight into, from undergraduate into graduate school into the academy, and that’s great. That’s what they want to do. But if we’re expecting them to have the ability to inject real-world problem-solving into the classroom, we need to facilitate that. We need to provide them with a way to have that information.

And we’ve got great faculty members out there who are teaching critical thinking. You know, take a historian, for instance. Great critical thinking for a historian. But does that translate well into an employee, employment situation? We need to be able to help that connection to be made.

Now let me give you an example of a great program that does that. Worcester Polytechnic Institute: small, private, technology-oriented university. About 40 years ago, they were getting feedback from employers. “You’ve got great technical skills, but when we hire your graduates, you know, they can’t work in groups. They’re not as effective in taking the knowledge that they’ve learned into these real-life engineering settings.”

So instead of saying, “Okay, thank you very much, business leaders, we’re going to go on doing what we always do because we’re faculty and that’s what we do,” WPI put a massive change through what they’re doing. And they’ve initiated project-based learning.

So, for example, one of the great programs in there is one that connects industry partners with faculty and students. So this group of three people meet together once a week for a semester. The interested partner brings a real-world problem to the table, the faculty member couches that in an academic exercise, and the student directs that project, and in the culmination, being both a written and an oral report like would happen in a real-world setting, right?

So the, what’s going on there is that connection, the student getting the real-life application of information in doing this project. But the byproduct of that is increased understanding between college faculty and industry partners so that they can see what that real-life applicability looks like.

I’m proud to have a son who goes to WPI. I’m proud that he’s at an institution that had the courage to look at what they were doing, look at the outcomes, decide what was going on there, and make changes. And when WPI did a study a couple of years ago about the experience at that institution, looking at people who’d been out for five, 10, 15, 20, 30 years, the number one thing that stood out was this project-based learning experience.

Not only from a personal standpoint — I mean, not only from a professional standpoint, but also from a personal standpoint, it was the thing that people pointed at in their college career that had the most impact to them. Oh, and by the way, WPI has a 90 percent job placement rate among its graduates.

So we need to do more of this work. We need to bring more of the connection to the real life into the classroom. We can do that. We can do that by having people who have these long-term projects that take over a semester to complete, by having people who are extremely involved in extracurricular activities. All those things have you applying what you’ve learned in college in a practical setting. We need people who have these internships, need to make them more available, internships that allow you to apply what you’re learning in a real-world setting.

In our study of 30,000 graduates at Gallup over the United States, we looked at all these items and about a third of college graduates have had some sort of experience with this, but only 6 percent had all three. If you had all three, that doubled the chances of you being an engaged employee. But only 6 percent get that.

We need to make some changes. We need to change some of the priorities in higher education to make that experience more applicable. If all we do is ingrain habits of mind in the classroom and not so that they’re applicable outside the classroom, then we’ve failed our students, we’ve failed their parents, and we’ve failed the American public.

We can make these changes. You can help. Students out there: now that you know that this is important, go and look for these kinds of experiences. And if you can’t find them, if there aren’t enough internships, then you demand that the school provide you with more of these opportunities.

Business and organizational leaders: we need your help. We need you to come out. We need you to make those connections. We need you to provide those internships to students.

And college faculty: I know that you care deeply about your students and that you want them to succeed, and you want them to take what you’ve been teaching them and apply it in their everyday life. Be open to those changes. This is not a revamping of the whole curriculum, it’s just a tweak. Just a tweak to put that real-world applicability into the curriculum.

We have a chance to save, to change lives here. So let’s do it. Thank you.