TEDxUCLA 2019: Time

Higher education is about to have its “Back to the Future” moment


About Peter

Peter Taylor is the president of ECMC Foundation. In his role, Mr. Taylor has led more than $90
million of investments in initiatives affecting educational outcomes, especially among
underserved populations, in the areas of college success and career readiness.

Before joining ECMC Foundation, Mr. Taylor served as executive vice president and chief
financial officer for the University of California system. During his time there, he oversaw all
aspects of financial management at the 10 campuses and the five academic medical centers.


Back to the Future was a classic 1980s movie that was funny and entertaining, but also contained themes of transformation that in many ways are a metaphor to the relationship between higher education and social mobility.

But that metaphor should remind us of the pressing need to look backwards in order to move forward and create a system of higher education that works for all students, not just a select few. In short, higher education needs its own Back to the Future moment.

Now those of you who saw the movie you might remember it begins in 1985 as our principal character, Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, lives in a ramshackle home and has a ramshackle car that has just been wrecked by his dad’s boss, a big bully named Biff. Of course most of the movie takes place in 1955 as Marty, through a series of mishaps, involving an eccentric scientist and some misplaced plutonium ends up jumping into a souped-up DeLorean automobile and travelling back in time and encountering his parents and Biff as high schoolers.

I suggest we emulate Marty to a certain extent and think about a time period between the 1950s and 1980s when, as a nation, we were holistic and broad-minded in our thinking about education and career pathways for young people out of high school.

You know I’ve had the privilege of working in and around higher education for a few decades, including five years as the Chief Financial Officer for the University of California system and currently as a member of the Board of Trustees for the California State University system.

Five years ago, I helped launch a national grantmaking foundation focused on improving student outcomes for young people from low-income and first-generation families. And to date, we’ve made over 110 million dollars in grants to nonprofit organizations nationwide.

But this time spent in and around higher education has led me to believe that as a nation we’ve become far too narrow in our thinking about appropriate pathways for young people out of high school. We have shoehorned too many young people into pursuing educational options that do not fit their educational or career aspirations.

The result: tens of thousands of students who drop out each and every year, deep in debt with no degree, poor job prospects, and a diminished sense of self-esteem that comes from their lack of success. That is the definition of failure. And the failure is on our shoulders for not helping them get on and stay on the right pathway from the beginning.

Now let me ask you to consider a few statistics about higher education here in California, and I’ll start with the good news: the data regarding the impact of a college education in terms of promoting social mobility for college graduates from low-income backgrounds is really quite impressive. As you can see, California leads the nation in this regard.

Next the okay news, I guess. Each year there are about 420,000 high school graduates in the state of California, of which about 63 percent will pursue post-secondary higher education of one shape or another: community college, four-year school, public university, private, in-state, out-of-state.

Sixty-three percent is pretty good. Not the best, not the worst compared to other states. But the bottom line is California provides good access to higher education at a variety of different levels, which might lead you to think the system’s working pretty well.

But when you examine actual graduation statistics, the picture is far less upbeat. Of that cohort of 420,000, within six years of graduating from high school, only 42 percent have actually finished a degree of any kind, whether it be community college or four-year degree. The fact is we’re admitting many students into higher education, but not nearly enough of them are actually graduating.

And so while it’s terrific that California leads the nation — yay! — in social mobility, when so few students are actually successful, could it be maybe we’re missing something in our system of higher education? Perhaps many of those students who enrolled but didn’t graduate got off on the wrong foot to begin with?

Now I know I suspect in this room there are a lot of people who believe the four-year degree is the best surefire pathway to a good job that pays a family-sustaining wage, a ticket to the American dream. And for many people, the four-year pathway makes all kinds of sense. Those of us who were fortunate enough to attend a great university like this one here at UCLA got a good education that prepared us for life in the real world.

The problem is too many people have come to see the four-year pathway as the one and only pathway to career success. I believe that is a mistake.

After all, if you were gonna go on a hike in the hills and your map showed you four different trails that you might take, wouldn’t you at least consider your options before you set off on your hike?

Or if you were going to drive up the coast and GPS showed you three alternatives — I think GPS always shows three alternatives — wouldn’t you at least consider your options before you turn the key or push a start button and rev the engine to head off on your trip? Shouldn’t we encourage young people to do the same before they start their post-secondary education journey?

Now let me see a quick show of hands from folks. Those of you who are students or graduates of UCLA or a graduate or some other four-year university, just real quick. The extent to which I can see, thank you.

Now those of you who are either currently enrolled or graduate of a CTE program, or for that matter know what CTE is. Well for those of you who are new to CTE, it stands for career technical education, what we knew in the time of Marty’s dad as vocational education.

Many jobs in construction, health care, culinary arts, hospitality require some education beyond high school but not a full-blown four-year degree. Today, literally millions of jobs that pay family-sustaining wages are unfilled because there is a serious mismatch between what higher education is teaching and what the workforce needs.

And if you want evidence, just this past Sunday, May 12th, 2019, front page, LA Times, major subway project, two years delayed. Number one reason: inability to find enough skilled workers. The fact of the matter is not enough higher education institutions are teaching to the CTE credential standards, and even fewer students are being encouraged to pursue them.

Y’know many schools that once had classes in woodworking, auto mechanics, electronics, drafting, those classes have now become virtually extinct. Students who learn by doing, students who like to work with their hands, students who are passionate about a particular skill or trade have found that their post-secondary higher education options have shrunk.

So the student who wants to be an electrician, a plumber, work behind the camera in Hollywood, or be a medical assistant at the local community clinic has too often heard that the post-secondary higher education CTE pathway is the route for the underachieving student. It’s stigmatized and disrespected.

But make no mistake about it: students who graduate from these programs earn good wages while taking on far less student debt. And these are students who are, or who are, like to solve problems, who want to employ their creative side, who care for others. And importantly, the reduced timeframe it takes to complete a course a study in CTE ensure that more students will persist and graduate.

So while we can all agree that graduates of the four-year pathway might make more money over the course of their career, when so few of our students are actually succeeding in any version of our higher education system, shouldn’t we recognize that the four-year pathway isn’t for everybody, and importantly isn’t the only pathway to socioeconomic mobility?

So how do we change this paradigm of higher education and get back to a time when we’re no longer so narrow but more broad-minded in thinking about appropriate pathways for young people coming out of high school? How can we change people’s perspectives about higher education and allow them to be on a path where they consider all alternatives?

Because after all, change is hard, particularly in something like higher education. Actually it’s not so hard in the movies, right, because you can write a script and make the change that way.

So if you think about it, in the movie, back in 1955, Marty had many attempts to try to help his rather wimpy father develop a backbone, and then sure enough all of a sudden dad gets up the courage to lay out Biff with a left hook to the jaw while in the parking lot of the high school right before the big Saturday night dance. And in so doing, he not only won the heart of the girl and allowed Marty to return to 1985 but he also dramatically changed the trajectory of his future and that of his family.

So how do we have, how can we create a Back to the Future moment in higher education? How can we envision a Back to the Future movement in higher education, to change the trajectory of more students and families and to help young people get on the right pathway? Well I believe there are five steps that we should take in order to prepare students for a dynamic future of work and career and at the same time drive up that meager graduation percentage.

First off, let’s implement innovative evidence-based CTE programs that are grounded in today’s reality. Similar to fixing up an old home or renovating a classic car, post-secondary CTE also needs an upgrade. We just simply can’t dust off a 1955 version and assume it will work in today’s dynamic workplace.

For example, a dynamic innovative CTE program will make extensive use of virtual reality and augmented reality tools to help students transition from classroom to workplace. After all, this old nostrum that auto mechanics are all greasemonkeys is just so outdated when you think about the computer diagnostics necessary to keep modern automobiles on the road.

And by the way, this upgrade should apply not just to the technical skills but to professional skills as well: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, sometimes called soft skills. The most effective future of higher education will combine applied learning with critical thinking, thereby breaking down the silly artificial barrier between applied knowledge and the liberal arts. The institutions that get this right are gonna have an outsized impact on the future of students, families, and communities.

Secondly, let’s value the learning that takes place in vocations like employer apprenticeships, online courses, university extensions, coding boot camps. Many of these have a vocational element to them and for some students they can replace the four-year degree altogether.

Thirdly, let’s recognize that the traditional college student between 18 and 24 is no longer in the majority in higher education. The single mother, the returning vet, the recently released incarcerated individual reintegrating into our community. Those people are now called the new traditional student, and they make up a majority in higher education with an average age of 27. Many of our four-year schools aren’t equipped to meet the kind of flexible needs that they have. But CTE programs have the experience in accommodating them.

Fourthly, maybe we can look around the globe to other countries that maybe do a better job balancing between CTE and the four-year degree. For example, some countries in Europe, fully 50 percent of their high school grads go on a CTE pathway. There’s no stigma associated with CTE in those countries. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from them.

And then lastly, all kinds of great funding and terrific programs won’t make a difference unless everybody in this room is on board. If we can accept all quality post-secondary education pathways as viable for our friends and families, then more students and more families today will see the kind of transformation that Marty’s family saw at the end of the movie, when there was no more ramshackle car and no more ramshackle house and Marty’s dad was a successful author and Biff, let’s just say he wasn’t bullying anybody anymore.

So I would ask: can you have a conversation that would allow you to endorse all pathways as viable for your friends and family — your kids, your grandkids? Can you have a conversation that breaks us out of this one-size-fits-all view in higher education and encourage young people to marry and match their education with their career aspirations? Because if you can do that, then we will see more successful graduates from our higher education system and we will have a profound transformative effect on students, families, and communities.

I know that sounds incredibly optimistic, but when you’re a Bruin, optimism is part of your DNA. Thank you and go Bruins.